The Canadian writer Sheila Heti observed, in a piece in January 2013, that the sudden flowering of photography had, in the early twentieth century, interrupted painting, only to give the visual arts a whole new direction. Freed from the burdens of being realistic, painting entered a highly vital and creative period. And, similarly, Heti contended, “Now that there are these impeccable serial dramas, writers of fiction should feel let off the hook more – not feel obliged to worry so much about plot and character and story there, so novelists can take off in other directions...” Building on Heti’s theory, novelist Mohsin Hamid concluded, in a 2014 essay: “Television is not the new novel. Television is the old novel. In the future, novelists need not abandon plot and character, but would do well to bear in mind the novel’s weirdness.”
With his second novel, Clouds, Chandrahas Choudhury has definitely attempted to engage with the idea of this new novel and its celebrated weirdness – going beyond plot and character to embrace a narrative of ideas – and for this attempt, at least, he deserves a pat on the back.
Clouds is set in Bombay, although its two chief protagonists both yearn of other places.
“India and Bharat”
Dr Farhad Billimoria, divorced psychotherapist, owner of a memorable nose (referencing perhaps the most memorable nose in IWE, the one that belonged to Adam Aziz of Midnight’s Children) and a posh flat on the Worli Sea Face, dreams of San Francisco, where he is all set to emigrate. In his last few days in Bombay (“lately named Mumbai by the nativist Marathas, and Mumabi by me as a provocation to them”), he encounters the enchanting Zahra Irani, who is, wonder of wonders, a native of SF too, and who, to Farhad’s consternation and confused delight, seems to be as into him as he is into her. And then, in a strange, almost-Beckettian way, he meets Hemlata B, the almost anti-Zahra professor of English, Columbia University-failed, from Borivali.
While Dr Billimoria is a creature of “Town”, in a small rented flat in the far suburbs, an old couple from Bhubaneshwar, Eeja and Ooi, obsess about their hometown and their politician-son, Bhagaban, who is fighting elections there, even as their caregiver, Rabi, a young tribal boy from a far-flung district of Odisha records their conversations, framing their obsession for Bhubaneshwar with his own longing for “the fields of Tininadi...the low roofs of the village...past the spires of smoke rising as the first fires of the evening seized the wood. Behind the village, the Cloud Mountain rose steeply up into the sky, long and flat as an elephant’s back. As far as the eye could see, the grey of dusk settled upon the greens and browns of my lovely land, but high in the heavens two fish-like clouds blushed pink, and the last rays of the sun caught the peak of the mountain and then the small blue flag of the Company planted there, as if pointing out what was wrong with the world.”
Watching over Tininadi is Cloudmaker, the intriguing tribal deity, whose home, the Cloud Mountain, the Company wants to mine; Bhagaban, ranged against the mighty Company, is fighting for the rights of Rabi’s nearly dispossessed brethren. In return, Rabi has accompanied his ailing, caste-proud, somewhat cantankerous parents to Bombay for treatment, and nurtures their papery, aged bodies, trading stories all day.
In her latest novel, The Living, novelist Anjali Joseph played with a similar structure. Two parallel stories ran their course – that of an elderly Kolhapuri chappal-maker in Maharashtra, and a young single-mother who works in the last shoe-factory left in England – without ever meeting, their co-existence justified by the common motif underpinning their lives: footwear. (And, of course, the human condition. But, mostly, footwear.)
In Clouds, that unifying theme is Bombay – if Farhad’s relationship with Bombay seems passive aggressive, the relationships of others to the city do lend nuance – and, of course, the eponymous “clouds”.
“‘Hmm...I guess the one thing I’ll admit to missing about Bombay when I’m gone is the clouds.’
‘Oh, don’t you worry. There are fantastic clouds all year round in San Francisco.’
‘Oh, of course, clouds are made up of the same kind of stuff everywhere – so, you might say one cloud is as good as another. But clouds also have a relationship to the place they are above, don’t you think?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘To me, each city has its own philosophy of clouds…and there aren’t any like the dense, dark clouds that suddenly arrive in Bombay in June, after the long, sapping summer. They have the beauty and surprise of – I don’t know – comets, eclipses. It’s like they’re our own yearnings and doubts, the stirrings of dreams long forgotten, projected on to the skies. You can almost touch them...taste them.’
‘Taste a cloud! Farhad, I didn’t know you could be so poetic. When you say things like this to your women patients – I mean, clients – I’m sure they all fall in love with you right away.’”
Us and them, or them and us
While Joseph’s novel is a quiet one, almost Zen-like in its ability to cast the world in short sentences, Choudhury’s is like an Indian bazaar, noisy and energetic, often to the point that Dr Billimoria’s world seems manic, sometimes self-indulgently so, mimicking in an excess of words and ideas the swirls of Bombay, and the concerns of the urban, upper-class, early middle-aged, thinking Indian’s rediscovery of sex and SF-as-salvation. Almost exactly mirroring the much-talked-of disparities between India and Bharat, Rabi’s narrative, of and from Bharat, must bear the weight of myth, history and politics, in a prose that in English must weave the lyricism of Rabi’s native tongue.
As it sometimes happens in novels of ideas, it is the minor characters who appear memorable. So Eeja, Ooi, Hemlata and Uncle Sheriyar (who accompanies Farhad and Zahra on a memorable trip to Udvada) seem far more authentic than the protagonists and their others: Farhad and Zahra and Rabi and Bhagaban.
Despite the energy – and periodic lyricism – of his prose, the experiments in structure and form, and the appeal of his minor characters, my quarrel with Choudhury’s book, though, is a major one. In the final analysis, it would seem to me that in his bid to escape the mid-list, the horror of any novelist worth their salt, Choudhury felt compelled to go beyond the canvas that worked to, instead, take on a canvas large enough to house all the thousand contradictions of the modern Indian state and of the lives of diverse peoples.
The two narratives, each of which had the potential to become a competent solo novel (maybe even a remarkable one), seem jammed together in a marriage of (in)convenience. They just never come together to create the great Indian novel of the author’s vision, and the taste of clouds that touches the tongue turns out to be unmemorable after all.
Clouds, Chandrahas Choudhury, Simon & Schuster.
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