Half-remembered thoughts and faces

Talking to Amit Chaudhuri a couple of years ago, I had suggested that places perhaps moved him more than people did and he had replied that he tended to be impatient with the Renaissance legacy of the human always occupying centre stage. It might not then be entirely capricious on my part to find, for instance, that Calcutta: Two Years in the City was very moving or that London was the creature I sensed pulsing strongest in Odysseus Abroad. It’s odd, thus, to find that Bombay does not really come alive in his latest offering, Friend of my Youth.

The writer continues to hack away at the form of the novel, challenging the notion of plot and substituting it not so much with a stream of consciousness as a long and lazy thread of narration that wanders like a slow and solitary walk across events and locations and ruminations. Insisting as before that using one’s own life and events and biographical facts need not be memoir but novel, Chaudhuri picks one aspect of his life—in this instance his relationship with Bombay and his childhood friend Ramu who lives there—and embellishes the details by doing what he does best, which is to use these as launching pads to embark on reflections on life and living.

The prose is precise, finely honed, sparse and ruthless in self-examination. Chaudhuri is a miniaturist, noticing every tiny detail and carefully assembling them into his mosaic. I tend to think of him as a craftsman from Saharanpur bent low over a wooden table and meticulously putting in brass inlay work, little whorls and leaves and curlicues. Look at this passage, the exactitude of location and count: “Diagonally across the Kamala Nehru Park is the club. The road turns left; this is my destination. The main entrance—I lift my bag up three steps.”

As in his earlier works, time is not linear but not bewildering either, gracefully yielding to memory or whim and following these threads hand in hand with the narrator. There are three broad periods and three Bombays that the book covers: the city the narrator grew up in; the city or, more specifically, the Taj after the 2008 terror attack; and the city bits the narrator encounters when he visits Bombay on book tours.

Strangely elusive

And yet, when you leave the book you realise that Bombay has not really made an impression upon you, nor has Ramu, the friend of Chaudhuri’s youth, the drug addict who never made anything of himself. They remain elusive, almost shadowy, the backdrop upon which the writer attempts to map his own mind, his predilections and prejudices; the setting in which he tries to trace the boyhood he left behind when he left the country, to tease out perhaps the reasons why neither friend nor city etched themselves more strongly upon his emotions.

Ramu at one point points out a faint white smudge in the night sky and says it’s the end of the Milky Way, a veil behind which lies another universe, behind which the writer also sees Ramu, fresh out of a harrowing rehab programme. A similar veil shrouds the book, like a mist that blunts the edges of people and places, making of them ghostly apparitions. I tried to claw it aside, to touch flesh, but the gossamer haze of words stayed in place. And at the end, I was left oddly dissatisfied, as if I had been denied a glimpse of real shapes or even the perverse horror of misshapen figures in a house of mirrors.

Scouting for sex on the waterside, the f* word thrown into dialogues, coke dealers—these images are carefully and self-consciously invoked, but are nothing more than scenery. Ramu is a lifelong junkie, but Chaudhuri scrubs this so clean it becomes a poetic role, his Narcotics Anonymous meetings put on a par with the writer’s book readings. One evening, Ramu waves at a massive gothic shadow and says they ‘transform’ him. It’s a fascinating choice of word and the writer notices it, but it doesn’t become an entry into Ramu’s head as one hopes, the text foraying instead into wordplay.

Perfectly played

It’s not that Chaudhuri pretends to a passionate love for either city or friend. He admits that he has not really known Bombay, has always disowned it, and has no nostalgia for it. Ramu, too, seems more a comfortable habit, someone he expects he will meet in Bombay but with whom he stays only desultorily in touch. Chaudhuri is brutally frank about this, but it also means that the book is no paean of affection to city or friend. It is, conversely, about the absence of such emotion, with both city and friend becoming foils for a cerebral literary exercise. Like a pianist practising études with clinical perfection.

A Bombay without its teeming, affectionate, hustling denizens is a bereft place. The writer appears too fastidious or too reticent to engage with the heaving multitudes, the unceasing traffic. A shoe salesman here, a peddler at the signal lights, a head waiter there, these are all you brush against. In the process, an inescapable air of effeteness hangs with high-burnished sensibility over the book. The casting of the Taj, for example, as a microcosm for the larger experience of terror and the almost exclusive focus on its hushed statement of architectural resurrection is startling in its self-indulgence.

There is a beautiful bit in the book where Chaudhuri dwells on narrator and author and their separate lives, how the narrator charts his own unpredictable course. Passages like these, where Chaudhuri mulls the nature of his craft, gleam throughout the slim volume, making it a precious insight into the workings of a writer’s mind. To ask for more would be greedy. What if he tiptoes just outside real life, it is still a rather delectable dance.

Friend of my Youth, Amit Chaudhuri, Penguin Random House, ₹499

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 12:05:59 AM |

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