Friday, February 26, 2010

The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri

This meeting there was nearly unanimous praise for the novel. All observed with interest that it follows recent trends in cross-cultural literature, by dropping in Hindi and some rarely used British words, the author is making the non-Indian audience work a bit harder to follow his meaning but gaining much in flavor. Anne equated this with Junot Diaz's writing, and Kate P. agreed, having just read Oscar Wao. Maybe this is possible because of ubiquitous internet access as well, (so easy to look words up). This however did not prevent Kate P and Anne from asking Deep, Samian and Sanjay to translate a few words and concepts. The first subject of interest was the mention of several mystical poets, both Hindu and Sufi, and some discussion of connections between Kabir and the Guru Granth Sahib.  
We all enjoyed the very subtle references to class, which made an interesting contrast with Rohinton Mistry, where the subject is more overt and central. The more central theme here seemed to be the subtleties of the relationship between guru and student, the inner lives and workings of the family, and to some extent the greater cultural context of music, classical versus popular. Kate P., Anne, Samian and Deep seened to appreciate Chaudhuri's softness and quietness, the slow movement of his story which is slowly revealed, where Kate B. felt a bit frustrated by the lack of drama in the plot. Anne and Kate P. found themselves astonished by some of Chaudhuri's sentences, which sometimes find themselves starting in one place and ending somewhere else completely. This could make for some slow reading at times; like watching a replay of a figure skater doing a triple axle, or a free style skiier- one has to go back to the beginning to marvel at how it was done. Or to change metaphors- listening to Thelonius Monk- you are sure that a rule was broken, but it was broken so beautifully that it must be listened to thrice to see how it worked. If for nothing else at all, the book seems to want to draw our awareness to the complete world of classical music, in which there were times of day for specific forms, and in which there were reasons for everything, devotion and much internal structure, most visible from the inside.


Narayan said...

From what I know about Chaudhuri I surmise that his book is autobiographical. If so, this is a case of life irritating art. With an engaging theme and an enviable cast of characters, he chose to reject Dickens and reached for Proust (the title slyly attests to it). By Page 20 his mannerisms grew so tiresome that I was offended thereafter by every semicolon used in place of a comma or a period (Look, Ma! I can write long sentences). Syntactical errors are so numerous that I wonder if anyone edited or proof-read the text before going to print. Many are laughable and easily spotted, leading me to suspect that author does not believe in reviewing, self-critique and rewriting – the writer's credo. “His personality exacerbated her ... louche and aimless walks ... when Nirmalya was smaller ... dwarfed aanchal ... vertiginous paragraphs .. redolent couples .. equanimous gusto ... became peripatetic ... search obdurately ... the zeitgeist was Lata's voice ... chest pains wrongly diagnosed as flatulence (he has the ends of the alimentary system confused!) ... arrived on a railway platform (his camel was at the vets?) ... Walking, he was aware of its newness ... speakers blasting out his pop and rock collection (I see LPs shooting off the balcony onto Pedder Road)” - his love of words is not matched by either judicious choice or mastery of their meaning and usage. Indian words and their English equivalents are thrown about to no purpose or inappropriately: a glass of water “gave much ananda” ... Motilalji is a form of address, not a name to be used by a narrator ... Laxmi Narayan Shukla would be addressed as Shuklaji, not Laxmiji (that might be good for Mrs. Shukla) ... why Tagore Song when Rabindra Sangeet is conventional? ... why dewar when devar is phonetically required (the curse of Indian VolksWagenism)? ... ghamand does not quite translate to proud (except when going before a fall) .... Stylistically, Chaudhuri seems too lazy to advance beyond the facile simile, so his “likes” and “as ifs” soon begin to grate. If this is the stuff of good writing then I'm an Anglo-phoney.
On a personal note I found his pronouncements about the locale objectionable in narration – it would be less so in a character's voice. There is a cultural chasm between South Bombay and North Mumbai that Chaudhuri carps upon and uncharitably so. Khar is low-brow, Borivli at the ends of the Earth, and Pali Hill and Juhu exempt? Pedder Road and Colaba are nouveau riche and Anglophone low-brow in my book! So what? These are personal prejudices, not grist for a narrator. Where does he think musicians and artists live in the Metropolis? Certainly not in poncy South Bombay – they couldn't afford the rents. Chaudhuri seems unaware that the center of the metropolis has moved North while he was off at Oxford, well past the Khar he defames as if he were the ultimate arbiter of taste. And had he looked around with a writer's eye, he would have found a city teeming with aging art-deco buildings from the forties onward.
We read about Pamela the secretary but are never told what business her employers are engaged in. And what's with the constant Mrs. Senguptas when we know and love her better as Mallika? The devil is assuredly in the details. This could have been a beautiful work of fiction. Given the material and the characters it should have been beautiful. I think it would have worked for me had it been centered on the divergent trajectories of Shyamlal and Mallika in the world of Hindustani classical music, with Nirmalya as the observer-narrator. Instead, it is a book about a narcissist by an incompetent writer. By page 133 I became exacerbated, my mind peripatetic, and I couldn't finish the book. I envy others who could read it for structure and story without being bothered by the louche and vertiginous language. I might have enjoyed it equanimously when I was smaller. Perhaps its the zeitgeist that gives published academics a free ride in fiction.

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