Amit Chaudhuri is a reliably brilliant narrator in his Bombay-set novel about nothing and everything
The English language and the English novel are flourishing in India. Sometimes that flourishing is a bit excessive, exuberance and linguistic facility leading to overblown description, larger-than-life – and therefore smaller than living – characters, verbosity and the improbabilities that are excused as exercises in magic realism. This can get wearying.
Amit Chaudhuri is a different sort of Indian novelist: cool, elegant, given to understatement and more concerned to examine and present the nature of experience than to soar into wild fancy. It’s no surprise to find that he is an admirer of the novels of Henry Green, terse, economical books in which the realism is poetic, not magic. Of Party Going, one of Green’s best novels, he has written: “it isn’t a novel in the usual sense of the term. It gives a wonderfully comic account of its characters, but it is also an assemblage – of moments, of different kinds of awareness of the world, and even of writing.” I quote this because what he says of Green might equally be said of him.
Like Party Going, Friend of My Youth isn’t a novel in the usual sense of the term. There’s no plot, and little drama. Characters are at best lightly sketched. They come, often briefly, and then depart. Ramu, the friend of the title, is missing, except in memory, temporarily confined to a clinic; all his frequent appearances in the novel are in the past tense. In one respect Chaudhuri is very different from Green; Green absents himself from his fiction, while Chaudhuri is at the centre of his here. Yet curiously, the effect is Green-like.
The author has returned to Bombay where he spent his childhood and schooldays. He is a successful novelist, here to publicise and promote his new novel. The bookshop in the Taj Hotel, which he used to frequent in his youth, has no copies ready. The Taj was the scene of the bloody terrorist attack in 2008. “The CCTV footage captures flashes of it: the men with guns intent; the guests and staff transiting at odd times of the night. All of them trapped, circling this wing. It’s in the bad lighting of the CCTV video that the hotel echoes the mausoleum it is named after…”
Meanwhile Amit – there’s no fictionalising of him – wanders around Bombay, noticing changes, seeking to recapture something of his youth. (I wish the publisher had supplied us with a map.) He does errands for his mother and his wife in Calcutta. He is interviewed by a journalist and lunches with his publisher’s rep. He describes his meals, always a good thing in novels; he is very fond of Parsi food – but Bombay’s long-established Parsi community is withering.
Most of all he remembers Ramu, as a schoolboy, student and middle-aged man on his last visit, one who has taken too many wrong turnings. “Life,” Amit recalls him saying, “is not everyone’s cup of tea.”
He remembers that, at the time he spoke those words, “he was forty-eight years old, a recovering addict, and I suppose he has a right to strike a note of dissent. It’s not one you hear frequently. Since there’s no choice in the matter, you automatically assume that life must be an excellent thing. It’s your fault if it isn’t. Ramu’s words reminded me this is a dogma.”
Ramu may be entitled to his dissenting words. Amit may sympathise, even accept the logic of his position, may recognise that life is something we’ve been landed in, and so we try usually to make the best of it. Intellectually, this makes sense. Everything in the novel contradicts it. After all, as he writes, “The author and the narrator are not one. Even if, by coincidence, they share the same name. The narrator’s views, thoughts, observations – especially the narrator’s life – are his or her own.” Quite so. Does this mean that, in contraction of what I wrote a couple of paragraphs ago, there is indeed a fictionalising of Amit? Yes, of course there is. Does this mean one is wrong to identify the author with the elegant laconic narrator? Perhaps, perhaps not. After all, this novel too is “an assemblage of moments, of different kinds of awareness of the world, and even of writing”. Like Green’s novels it offers delight; it shimmers, you seek to catch hold of it, and it slides away.
Friend of My Youth is published by Faber & Faber, £12.99