Tuesday, October 22, 2002

art and desire in urban india

Real Time: Stories and a Reminiscence, by Amit Chaudhuri. Farrar Straus & Giroux. $21

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2002).

THE SPARE, elusive tales that make up Indian author Amit Chaudhuri's first collection of short stories, Real Time, manage to capture both the sudden beauty and the crushing stuffiness of domestic life. As in his four well-regarded novels, A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song and A New World, Chaudhuri's primary interest in this collection is not in the twists and turns of plot, but in evoking the emotion and atmosphere of upper middle-class India.

Chaudhuri writes literature, in both the most complimentary and the pejorative sense of the word. The 15 tales that comprise Real Time take on serious subjects, identity, love, loss. But these stories are not titillating, though they are resonant with meaning. This is art, not entertainment; moving, but also depressing. Most of the stories of Real Time seem to end prematurely, unfinished, while an infinity of possibilities still remains for his reader and protagonist. But something in these quiet, circumscribed tales communicates an air of inevitability, too, an atmosphere of possibilities squashed by circumstance.

In "White Lies," for example, a middle-aged housewife and dilettante fantasizes that she can become a singer, eventually performing at one of the corporate parties held by her executive husband. The noose that is ordinariness is always around her neck, however, and unerring sentences like this one draw it ever tighter: "She wasn't really missed; one was missed at other people's parties, but not at one's own; one was not so much the centre of attention at one's own as a behind-the-scenes worker." A grim prelude to one's first musical performance. After the party, Mrs. Chatterjee comes to a frightening realization about her husband, who has a charming love for her inexpert singing. She observes: "To her surprise, he began to hum a tune himself, not very melodiously . . . He seemed unaware that anyone else was listening. Seeing him happy in this way--it couldn't be anything else--she felt sorry for him, and smiled inwardly, because no one, as he was so successful, ever felt sorry for him, or thought of his happiness." Mrs. Chatterjee's second epiphany, which comes only after some sharp words from her guru, is even more disheartening: "For the following two days, Mrs. Chatterjee, going around in her chauffeur-driven car from the club to the shops in the mornings, couldn't bring herself to hum or sing even once; the driver noted her silence. She'd suddenly realized that her need to sing had been a minor delusion, that she and her husband and the world could get by without it."

The preoccupation with love and art and their power--or incapacity--to break through the constrictive dullness of domestic life runs through most of the stories of Real Time. "A Portrait of an Artist" describes a Calcutta tutor who is desperately clinging to poetry and the city's tiny literary world in an effort to give his life meaning. "Prelude to an Autobiography: A Fragment" evokes through imitation a housewife's overpowering desire to write. None of these reflections on the allure of art ends happily. The everyday always descends to snuff out inspiration. But with the spirit of Calcutta--a city that is home to a million amateur poets and a healthy proportion of the world's tiniest literary magazines--Chaudhuri suggests there is nobility in the effort.

If it is not uplifting, Real Time is an invigorating contrast to the volumes of Indian literature produced in English with a Western publisher in mind--too often with a Salman Rushdie or a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez weighing on the author.

One of the characters poses a question, "Whom does one write for?" Real Time suggests a number of answers. Chaudhuri steers clear of the Raj and eschews exotic India, writing instead of the executives of his country's larger companies and their wives, children and servants. Is he writing, then, for Indians? From his oblique references to obscure regions and personalities--clearly meant to resonate with significance--one might assume so. But there is also evidence Chaudhuri wants the West to read about an India where high-school bands also covered Deep Purple in the 1970s, and where kids exhorted mothers and tailors to create thigh-hugging hippie jeans.

One of his characters opines, "Although so many people write these days . . . you feel the world you know, the India you know, is still to be written about."