A slightly shorter version of this appeared in today's The Hindustan Times
The narrator of Saumya Bhattacharya’s If I Could Tell You dotes on his daughter, is a cricket enthusiast, has lived in Bombay and London, and is set on becoming a writer. Clearly, Bhattacharya is keen to create a teasing interplay between his life and his fiction, evident from the very first word of the book: Oishi, the name of both the narrator and novelist’s daughter.
Speaking of his work-in-progress, the unnamed narrator quotes Bellow – “fiction is the higher autobiography” – and clarifies that, in the words of Roth, this is a confession in the guise of a novel, not the other way around. The differences between reality and the novel become clear as the book’s tragic dimension unfolds; one should heed Lawrence and trust the tale, not the teller.
Love and frustration encircle the narrative like strands of a double helix. This is the tale of a character drawing from his life to write “a novel of unfulfilled ambition and hope, about fatherhood and wanting to be a writer”. It’s in the form of letters to his daughter, a structure that allows for reflection and digression; to Bhattacharya’s credit, such meditations are part of the overall flow rather than detracting from it.
The novel opens with Oishi’s birth on a Calcutta evening in 2001, and circles between past and present – the death of the narrator’s parents when he was three; his years in Calcutta and Bombay; his invested nest-egg; his time studying in London; meetings with his to-be wife; and their lives in Bombay. It’s when an act of naïve unfaithfulness comes to light that relationships are wrecked, a situation further complicated by the slackening of India’s much-touted growth by the recent recession.
The prose is compressed and lucid in portraying events and emotions, yet lyrical in description and detail, be that of monsoon skies, sunlight on a London park, a torn rejection letter or rain-soiled umbrellas. (Because of this display of control, the inebriated, Joycean ending comes as a surprising affectation.)
This is a narrator for whom literature has replaced religion – witness the frequent allusions to other writers -- and who exists at an angle to the universe. Of his time in London, he says, “It seemed to me that I wasn’t a real person in a real world but inhabiting the world of books that I carried around in my head”.
Such solipsism unfortunately creates the effect of events happening in a bubble, unshackled from surroundings and social moorings -- even though the gentrification of Mumbai’s suburbs, crumbling infrastructure and noxious traffic are often mentioned. This inwardness also weakens the portrayal of other characters: the wife, for example, appears only when she has a specific role to play, not being woven into the novel’s texture. The narrator refers to himself as unreliable, yet this unreliability – and his awareness of it – appears underdone.
The novel’s title, and one of its epigraphs, is from the Auden poem of the same name. The blend of tenderness and tragedy in this tale “of hopes thwarted, of promises broken” reminds one of another famously-amended line by the same poet: “We must love one another,” he wrote, “and die”.