Amit Chaudhuri’s work often puts me in mind of an exchange in that great German nineteenth-century novel, Effi Briest: “What do I think of life?” asks mild Pastor Niemeyer, in reply to Effi’s desperate questioning. “A little and a lot. Sometimes a great deal, sometimes a very little.” Such simplicity, such easy truthfulness, is in fact hard won, and demands daring, wisdom and calm: the artist holding steady; a spot of stillness in the eye of the storm. In one of his essays, Chaudhuri quotes Satyajit Ray: “It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears.”
Life comes to you, and you just open all your lenses. But of course it isn’t as simple as that. The artist selects and discards, admits and refuses, imitates and transforms; careful openness poses as careless openness. Chaudhuri comments: “When Ray speaks of ‘life’ and the ‘raw material’ of life, he’s speaking of a refutation of the spectacular that comprises the exotic, in favour of the mundane, the everyday, and the transfiguration of the mundane.”
There is no better example in Amit Chaudhuri’s work of “the transfiguration of the mundane” than his second novel, Afternoon Raag, which lingers gently over life in Oxford and life in Calcutta and Bombay, absorbing all the textures and dynamics of these very different cities while magically transforming them into dream. Like much of Chaudhuri’s writing, Afternoon Raag – first published in 1993 – is a beguiling mixture of documentary fidelity, fictive torque, and personal memoir.
Decades before “autofiction” would become (at least in the Anglo-American realm) the favoured, modish escape from the strictures of traditional realism, and decades before Karl Ove Knausgaard was using his own life for an exhaustive examination of the mundane, Chaudhuri was quietly practising his idiosyncratic version of “a refutation of the spectacular.” Nothing much “happens” in Afternoon Raag, though everything is at stake: the homelessness of the self, the working of memory and desire, the music of chance.
The novel is grounded in Chaudhuri’s own experiences as a graduate student at Oxford in the 1980s, a young man negotiating a modus vivendi between two homes, an inherited one and an adopted one. But while plenty of writers have written about their student days at Oxford, and a good number have now written about their experiences of immigration, emigration or exiled loneliness in England, few if any have written a novel like Afternoon Raag. The difference is hard to explain, but some of it is rhythmic: Chaudhuri works at an unhurried, exploratory speed, and his emphases don’t fall quite where you expect them to. Unlike most writers, he seems unwilling to shape his scenes along the usual dramatic arcs; he prefers to paint a tableau, to let his descriptions hang rather than bustle.
So he notices things you might have missed, but also bothers to explain things that another writer might consider beneath his notice, as simply not amenable to literary representation. How patiently, and how painstakingly, for instance, the narrator of Afternoon Raag tells us about the furniture in his rather drab and featureless room at Oxford (because, as he wisely notes, “for a foreigner, the room one wakes and sleeps in becomes one’s first friend”), and explains the contours of his days at university – boiling the kettle, walking optimistically to the pigeon-holes to look for the morning post, doing the laundry or walking to the showers, reading DH Lawrence, talking to his friends Sharma, Mandira, and Shehnaz. Everything is seen and examined and compared: how English rain does and doesn’t resemble Indian rain; what it is like to sit on the top deck of a double-decker bus (and then to notice the Indian driver, and further to notice that this driver seems most Indian in his “more-English-than-the-English” politesse, his will to fit in).
I appreciate this patience in Chaudhuri’s work, because it is risky: it dares the mundane, it is willing to slow down the pace of artifice, or almost to dissolve novelistic artifice altogether. Such care with noticing also enacts and embodies the foreignness – the feeling of not being at home – that has so preoccupied Chaudhuri in his work. (He has returned to these early years of homelessness in his recent work, especially Odysseus Abroad and Friend of My Youth.) When the noticer is unhoused, vulnerable, uncertain, ungrounded – “Oxford is such a lonely place,” he thinks – then nothing can be taken for granted.
The writer is trying everything out for the first time: what is English rain like? What is an English summer like? (In Odysseus Abroad, Ananda reflects on how, in India, the word “summer” is a relatively dead word. “Only after coming to England had he discovered the beauty of the word.”) What is it like to sit on the top floor of a double decker bus and see Oxford from within it? What is it like to wake up in England and hear nothing, when one has been accustomed to waking up in India and hearing the sound of crows (“this absence of noise would fill me with a melancholy which was difficult to get rid of because it seemed to have no immediate cause”)?
One literary name for this useful foreignness of vision, this seeing everything as if for the first time, is estrangement – the “defamiliarisation” praised by the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky (what he called ostranenie), practised in a good deal of modernist and post-modernist writing, and cherished by Shklovsky’s most loyal student, Vladimir Nabokov. This is partly what Chaudhuri means by the “transfiguration” of the mundane. And Afternoon Raag is beautifully full of such estranging transformation.
Our narrator remembers the “solipsistic bubbling” of his parents’ kettle; walking toward the student mailboxes on a Monday morning, he reflects that “the pigeon-holes, after the poverty of Sunday, its forced spiritual calm, seemed to overflow humanely with letters on Monday.” In May, as the triumphant students gather outside the examination halls, drinking champagne and holding flowers, they resemble opera singers who have been chosen by Oxford to perform for it. In Calcutta, sweating men, “human parking meters,” go from parked car to car with their tickets, their fees brief and slight like the mosquito’s sting. At the Bombay Gymkhana, men sit on chairs and “childishly ring little brass bells to summon the waiters.”
But I find most moving in Chaudhuri’s writing those moments when his brilliance at literary transfiguration enacts not literary mastery (the Nabokovian confidence of the estranging gesture), but instead seems to issue from uncertainty, exile, elegy, absence, the premonition of loss. Afternoon Raag opens with the announcement of the imminent death of the musician who has taught the narrator’s mother: “The music-teacher is dying.” The entire book is shadowed by this anticipation. There is a fragility to everything. Oxford seems unreal, “like a dream one is about to remember.” The students come and go, and their annual vanishing makes them seem “strangely negated…accidental.” Only the stones are eternal. But if Oxford seems unreal, then Bombay or Calcutta, where his parents still live, can only be remembered with a nostalgia that is itself “half-imaginary.” His parents, originally from a tiny village in East Bengal (now in Bangladesh), were born in a place that “seems never to have existed.”
Over all these memories of family life is poured a great tenderness, and, I think, a great apprehension. Chaudhuri lovingly describes his mother’s routines – her weak tea, her singing, the way she eats fish (“meticulously destroying” the fish’s “labyrinths”), or how she sits at the club: “a silent composition of loved details.” The narrator sees his father in the same spirit – “the extraordinary Chinese calm of the drawing-room,” as his father calmly sits and reads the Times of India and admires the cartoons of RK Laxman. Especially moving is the narrator’s memory of his parents’ evening walk: “Their lonely parade, their quiet ambitiousness…”
Parents might reasonably be thought to be “ambitious” for their children, but isn’t there also something a little terrifying for the child to see his parents walking together, conferring, lost in their own self-sufficient marital existence? The child fears being left behind, which is what will happen naturally anyway, in the course of life and death. “They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own,” writes Marilynne Robinson in her novel, Housekeeping.
These gorgeous dragging vignettes, shadowed by the music-teacher’s death that begins and ends this book, seem to exist in a dream that might disappear at any moment. The exiled or unhoused student might confidently assume that, when the slightly unreal experience of Oxford is over, he will return “home,” to the country he knows best, the place where he was born and grew up – as perhaps will the narrator’s friend Sharma, Sharma the student who embraces life in Britain as the narrator cannot, quite; but who stays utterly Indian: “Yet he did not exchange his persona for a new one, as many city-educated Indians do in England; he remained still and deep.”
For the narrator, by contrast, there is the faintest anguish that there will be nothing to return to, that the childhood life has dissolved, and that the narrator will be suspended between an old home that has disappeared and a new home that has not fully materialised, or that may never materialise. Of course, this suspension between two places, this homelessness, can become a productive anxiety, and Chaudhuri has returned, fertilely, to the freedom of this anxiety in the course of his literary career. But here, early in his writing, it announces itself as fear, the child’s melancholy apprehension that his parents will die, a death foreshadowed by the death of the guru to whom the book is dedicated, the musician Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale, who died in 1988.
This is surely why the book ends with a recitation from Lawrence’s great poem, “Ship of Death.” At the end of the book, poetry and music come together, as Sharma reads Lawrence’s words, as if he were singing them:
Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
O build your ship of death, for you will need it.
The ship, writes Lawrence, will have to be fitted with everything that is needed for “the departing soul.” And as poetry and music come together, so also do the narrator’s parents, combined in one song, one musical breath – the book’s final paragraph. There they are, not yet departed, mother and father. Still alive, still vital, still confident and “ambitious” for the future, and not yet the builders of their own ship of death. Not yet.
Excerpted with permission from the “Introduction”, by James Wood, to the twenty fifth anniversary edition of Afternoon Raag, Amit Chaudhuri, Penguin Books.