Monday, April 20, 2009

Afternoon Raag

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Express.

THE IMMORTALS Amit Chaudhuri

In an essay from his recent collection, Clearing a Space, Amit Chaudhuri has written of the importance of exploring “the elisions that direct the binaries (East, West; high; low, native; foreign, fantasy; reality, elite; democratic)”. In his new novel, The Immortals, he continues to uncover such elisions by delving deep into the lives of disparate individuals living in the Bombay of the Seventies and Eighties.

The focus is primarily on Mallika, incipient professional singer, married to Apurva Sengupta, chief executive of a large corporation, and their sensitive son Nirmalya. The other pole of the narrative concerns Shyamji, musician and tutor, who instructs Mallika and then Nirmalya in the intricacies of Indian classical music. Others who wing their way in and out of the text include the Neogis, old friends of the Senguptas, a domestic retinue of cooks and cleaners, and others from Shyamji’s extended family, who also dabble in music.

Chaudhuri’s fiction has always had more to do with delicacy, nuance and the minutiae of the everyday, rather than grand national narratives, character development or plotted arcs. It’s no surprise then that he follows the same template here, as he traces Nirmalya’s coming of age, Mallika’s blanched dreams and Shyamji’s disillusionment over the years.

There’s an elegiac, long-summer-afternoon tone to much of the book, with Chaudhuri taking his time to explore moods, their gradations and his characters’ self-questioning ways. Of a character’s using the word “beautiful” to describe a Cuffe Parade flat, for example, he writes, “By 'beautiful' she didn't mean what she meant when wandering about an art gallery, or assessing one of her husband's graphic designs; as an adult sometimes pretends to use a word in a simple, clear, limited way for the benefit of a child, she used the word as the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie thoughtlessly used it, as an uncomplicated acknowledgement of well-being.”

The city of Bombay is the living, breathing backdrop to the characters’ peregrinations, and Chaudhuri carefully maps the spaces they inhabit: three-bedroom apartments in Malabar Hill; the taking of tea at the Sea Lounge and dinners at Tanjore; classical concerts at NCPA; buildings in far-flung Borivili; new developments in Versova; chawls in King’s Circle; and the genteel charms of Bandra’s Pali Hill.

There are times when his quiet prose carries a whiff of wry irony; at other times, one encounters an unhurried poet’s eye, as with this description of a Bandra lane following a spell of rain: “After the shower the gulmohur blossoms would have fallen from branches on certain parts of the road with a particular exactness and economy, precise carpets of bright red only in those sections of the lane where the gulmohur trees stood, then, an hour later, becoming pink, then, after another hour, a soiled pink fading into the tarmac's perennial, unsentimental grey.”

The creation and inevitable commercialisation of music also plays a large role in the novel, charting the ups and downs of Shyamji’s family when it comes to chasing fame and riches, and Mallika Sengupta’s fantasies of becoming a performing artist – as well as guest appearances by Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, among others. In particular, the philosophy-loving, jeans-and-kurta clad Nirmalya mulls continually over the nuances and origin of Indian ragas and the compromises that those he looks up to make to achieve popularity. Such discussions on music and its evocation, in fact, are among the book’s great strengths.

Because Chaudhuri’s is a miniaturist’s art, and because this is a more commodious book than his others, there is occasionally a feeling of formlessness and even indolence about the enterprise. Nirmalya’s solipsism and his family’s frequent shifts of residence are dwelt on for self-indulgent lengths of time. (Chaudhuri, in his earlier essays and poems, has written frequently about his own experiences of growing up in Bombay, and this is why there’s always the lurking suspicion that he’s unable to get away from dredging and re-dredging memory’s gold.)

On occasion there are tributary-like digressions into the lives of others, along with their back-stories, that don’t quite serve to thicken the mix, and in addition, the few shifts of location to London – following first, Shayamji and then Nirmalya – appear to be unwarranted. Admittedly, Chaudhuri’s concerns are broader than simply painting a portrait of Nirmalya as a young artist, but in casting his net so far and wide, he disperses attention.

At one point, the teenage Nirmalya, pondering over the pointlessness of his young existence so far, muses that “nothing in the end can cocoon you from the effort it takes to master something, from the fact that the returns are wrung reluctantly from the energy invested - but neither can you protect yourself from the banal and the everyday that comprise your life and make it safe and familiar for you”. That, indeed, could have been the epigraph to this sensitively delineated but languorous novel.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Shadow Play

This is from the latest Tehelka

BURNT SHADOWS Kamila Shamsie

There have been novels about the atomic bombs dropped over Japan (Black Rain). There have been novels on the aftermath of India’s Partition (Train to Pakistan). There have been novels based in war-torn Afghanistan (The Wasted Vigil). And there have been novels regarding the aftermath of 9/11 (too many to recount).

Now, Kamila Shamsie bravely tries to weave all of these and more into her new work, Burnt Shadows -- clearly, an ambitious departure from her earlier novels. Though her even-toned prose and efforts to probe the changing psyche of characters over the decades are worthy of note, what lets the novel down is its linear, chronological structure that calls for many technical compromises.

The action of the novel begins in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, when the 21-year-old Hiroko’s life is ravaged by the dropping of the atomic bomb. It moves to Delhi in early 1947, when Hiroko arrives at the house of her deceased fiancĂ©’s sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, James Burton. She strikes up a relationship with James’ legal assistant, Sajjad Ashraf, and the scene shifts briefly to Istanbul before going on to Karachi in 1982, where we’re introduced to Raza, a young man confused about his future, who travels to a mujahideen training camp with an Afghan associate. From here, the novel segues between the post-9/11 terrains of New York and Afghanistan.

Throughout, these tragic global events are the backdrop to the shifting relationships between various members of two families over the years: “Whatever might be happening in the wider world, at least the Weiss-Burtons and the Tanaka-Ashrafs had finally found spaces to cohabit in, complicated shared history giving nothing but depth to the reservoir of their friendships.”

With such a grand design, there’s always the danger that the need to keep the narrative moving, as well as provide connecting chronological tissue, will precede character development. That this is unavoidable to some extent (Hiroko’s character is the most fully realized) is ruefully acknowledged by the author herself when she has one of the characters tell another: “Both times you've entered my home it's been nuclear-related. Once was acceptable; twice just seems like lazy plotting”. (Perhaps this could have been avoided had the links been thematic rather than literal, as with the work of David Mitchell.)

In other respects, though, Shamsie’s care with the narrative is evident. There are striking impressionistic sketches of the cities that her characters travel through, and passages such as Raza's panic when faced with an exam paper, among others, are well-handled.

Setting aside the question of how the book’s structure impedes its ambition, Burnt Shadows is an intrepid look at how the scars of history -- like the bird-shaped radiation blemishes on Hiroko’s back -- are difficult to erase in an age when individual destinies become subservient to nationalistic ambitions.