It would be exaggerating and alarming to say contemporary Indian literature is in an ongoing crisis. The avid discussion and argument sprung up during Covid, boosted by the more military and bellicose politics the nation still witnesses, attests to a resilience among groups adhering to a “more benevolent’ way of being. If anything may account for the increasing sense of trouble among these groups, if anything is in crisis, it is that of identity. “Are we Indians or becoming something else, as many have bemoaned and cautioned?” This distress may be in itself a possible subject of prose and verse, particularly in this, Amit Chaudhuri’ ninth novel, Sojourn.
A passive watcher
The sojourn of the title seems in the present time. For one matter, the story’s narrator is veritably an exile, more voluntary than the sojourner who stays a while for purposes not always apparent. One cannot help but compare a figure as Sojourner Truth, the 19th Century American evangelical who roamed across the countryside bringing spirit, hope, and power-to. There is a striking contrast between these two sojourners. One is an evangelical whose temporary stays across the town and countryside and reaches outward to inform the citizens about not only God’s word but about their rights of freedom they deserve as citizens.
The other sojourner, in Sojourn, instead of giving outward – nor directly – stands here before us, while reaching inward, even in Berlin, which occupies his whole sojourn. He is taking in, as you might a movie. Sojourner as passing, a passive watcher.
The narrator does not appear to know why he is there. Officially he is a Heinrich Boll Professor at a (Berlin?) university. But he hardly speaks about Boll, although he just might acknowledge the unseen author at one of the university functions, say a seminar, where he is to offer his thanks to the late bequestor for having a place to sleep. We do not even hear the inaugural address, if it ever came up at all. Yet, there is no falsity about him, in his seeming indifference to playing the role of an academic teaching fellow.
‘A home in Berlin’
Yet, Berlin itself appears to draw him, to offer a home, as if his own seeming affectless has a place for a city that seems not to have recuperated from its former existence as a wall, a powerful division of one-half’s self and the other half’s. Narrator, being a deliberate exile, cannot reconcile these two halves – not that needs to or even wants to. “I don’t feel lost in Berlin anymore…There’s more of a home in Berlin.”
The other of these “two halves” – and I do not propose that the author is even conscious of these two, and I use to concept here for heuristics’ sake – pertains to India, and hence, I believe, to the whole narrative. He receives a very forward email from a woman enamoued of his work, so accurately praising – that is, not off on a tangent, she veritably opens herself to invitation. On phone she declares in her panegyric “I love India!” Her remark does not distract from his openness to visiting, with her. But halfway down the page he tells himself, “I’m wary of Europeans who love India – an old neurosis.”
Hence the division, the split in him: He is drawn to this woman partly out the possibility that she has some correspondence with her outlooks, but at the same time he finds a disingenuity or affect hard to fathom. That is, half of the split seems due to a sincere skepticism about people who so express a love for the country without a hint of how attached he is to it – as if they even know a thing about its real workings. On the other hand is his self-exile, his need not to be swallowed by his country. He is, then, in a kind of literary – or even personal – crisis, as the whole scene on page 76 reveals most fully in the entire book.
Disaffected and elliptical – but not one to startle readers, who have likely encountered plenty of ellipses, fictionalised.
Sojourn, Amit Chaudhuri, Penguin.