Book review

Is Bombay the real ‘Friend of My Youth’ whom Amit Chaudhuri writes about in his new novel?

And is the Amit Chaudhuri in the novel really Amit Chaudhuri the writer?

Amit Chaudhuri’s novels have always taken their time, lingering over seemingly mundane details, building up the world around the characters while gently delving into their lives. Friend of My Youth begins slower than most (especially compared to his relatively rich and sprawling The Immortals, which is repeatedly referenced in this novel). For instance, the second (untitled, unnumbered) chapter painstakingly describes a club (including its menu, and the fact that there are two options for coffee – Nescafe and filter coffee, with a description of each – and the revelation that the narrator orders his tea “separate”, that is, the milk and sugar are to be provided separately).

And yet, the details add up. He grows on you – the narrator and protagonist Amit Chaudhuri: old-school, somewhat fussy, loyal to his friends and family, rather self-absorbed, gentle and sensitive. He hangs around in Bombay doing nothing much (this is several years ago, and before he had a smartphone), feeling bored and ruminating about the attacks of 26/11, which directly affected his old haunts, particularly the Taj Mahal hotel. Loved ones – parents, wife, daughter, friends – are viewed with kindness and affection, even when the narrator seems baffled by their behaviour. Less kind, perhaps, are a few passing remarks about strangers and acquaintances, such as old classmates who had “given up and died”.

My Bombay, your Bombay

Friend of My Youth is, obviously, as much Bombay as it is the titular “friend”. What is it like to visit Bombay after having grown up here but lived away from it for most of your adult life? I refer to the city as Bombay because the novel does. And it’s almost exclusively Bombay – that is, South Bombay and a bit of Bandra, and not the greater area that adds up to Mumbai.

Unlike the narrator, I didn’t grow up in Bombay: I have only called it home for a few years. But I have a fierce loyalty to the city, which made this novel more satisfying for me, even as I pettily disapproved of many of the narrator’s reactions to it. (He’s not forthcoming enough with the taxi driver, I gripe – Bombay taxi drivers are, as a rule, wonderful conversationalists – and he has “claimed never to love Bombay”, which makes me gasp.) But how easy it is to get drawn in, when with such deft and sparse strokes, Amit Chaudhuri presents an Amit Chaudhuri I want to argue with.

My friend from yesterday

Ramu, the friend the novel is ostensibly about, is present at first only in the narrator’s thoughts and reminiscences. The novel moves back and forth in time but stays in place – always in Bombay. Ramu, steadfast friend with an unwavering personality which contrasts (somehow, this is unsurprising) with his lack of a stable career and his drug addiction, imprisoned in a cruel rehab facility from which he finally makes his escape. The Ramu of the narrator’s youth is as insouciant as the Ramu of several decades later, even though he’s worn down physically and perhaps emotionally by addiction and age and loss.

The narrative maintains a delicate balance between depth and casualness: while it retains, almost throughout, an easy, familiar tone, behind this curtain there are glimpses of impending tragedy, which never quite enters the page. Ramu’s near-fatal overdose is recounted with an emotion that’s mostly under the surface. The horror of his stint at the punitive rehab centre dealt with in a few sentences. It is almost as if death and violence are not genteel enough to enter these pages, as if we must step carefully around them, the way Mumbaikars turn their faces away from unsavoury smells on the street.

“Bombay was never good enough for me,” the narrator says ruefully, even as he looks around with so much nostalgia that I feel an urge to head down to Colaba and walk those familiar streets at once. Even Ramu seems almost a part of the architecture of Bombay, of Colaba, rather than a person. Indeed, he refuses to leave even though he can’t afford to live there.

Not my story

But Friend of My Youth is also an exploration of the nature of friendship: especially the kind of friendship that is formed early in life and endures, simply because your shared experiences and habits of mutual affection keep you tied loosely to each other.

The novel is very – to use a word Chaudhuri (the narrator? the author? perhaps both) probably would not like – meta. It blends fact and fiction intriguingly, even featuring an interview of the narrator by a journalist on his latest book, The Immortals. He tells the journalist he doesn’t like the word “autobiography” because “I’m not really interested in telling you about my life.” At this point, he seems to be trolling us.

There are some genuinely funny lines, as when he’s wary of the stern-looking waiter at the club, and wonders “if press interviews are permitted on the premises or if I have to write a letter to the secretary.” (I LOLed.) He describes interviews by incompetent or overworked journalists who haven’t read the book they are interviewing him about, and adds that “most journalists today finish the book.”

Chaudhuri’s measured pace seems an anachronism, like stepping back into a world that you thought had slipped away. I was a teenager when I first discovered him, and savoured his descriptions of the leisurely, almost decadent summer holidays that school children so enjoy, when time seemed to have expanded in the humid heat of eastern India.

Yet here we are, in his latest novel, which ends in current times and is still as leisurely and microscopic as any of his writing. In the very last sentence of the novel, the narrator and his family are waiting for an Uber: an effective way to drive home the fact that we have landed firmly in the present. What he writes of the Taj hotel, which has been restored to its former glory, may also be true of his writing: “It’s turned its back to the future it’s once more moving towards.”

Friend of My Youth, Amit Chaudhuri, Hamish Hamilton.

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