Wednesday, April 15, 2009 - A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in the South China Morning Post of April 12, 2009
by Amit Chaudhuri
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Amit Chadhuri is the author of four novels, each of which has bagged one award or more. Another uniting feature of these works is that they deal with Indian classical music in some form or other. That is not surprising considering that Chaudhuri, a teacher of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, is a trained and practising singer in the North Indian classical tradition. Chadhuri has once again employed the twin facets of his persona as writer-singer in his new novel, The Immortals.
The novel revolves around three characters and the relationship that each has with music. Mallika Sengupta is a middle-class housewife who pursues her passion for classical singing when not performing the role of the wife of a senior corporate executive. Her adolescent son Nirmalaya is an angst-ridden youth who believes in the purity of art and is critical of his mother’s seemingly casual attitude. Shyam Lal, the gifted son of an acclaimed-yet-poor musician, knows that art cannot be pursued on an empty stomach and spends his time teaching music to the variously wealthy, bored, culture-seeking elite of Bombay – he is Guru to Mallika Sengupta and her son.
When the novel opens Mallika Sengupta has ambitions of cutting a disc, a task to which she dedicates her mornings, practising with her Guru Shyamji. Meanwhile, Mallika’s husband is utilizing his connections to suitably impress the honcho at a record company. Nirmalaya, their teenage son, pores over philosophy books and wanders listlessly around south Bombay, disdainful of the highrise he resides in yet enjoying the seaview and spectacular sunsets from its tall windows. A typically ambivalent teenager, he accompanies his mother to her performances, simultaneously proud and critical of her. Meanwhile, Shyam Lal, responsible for a sprawling joint family, and attempting to shore his income through tuitions, begins to tutor a curious Nirmalaya.
The Immortals is to an extent a distillation of the author’s own life. Amit Chaudhuri learnt classical music and suffered from a hole in the heart, an ailment that Nirmalaya has. His mother, much like Mallika Sengupta, is a singer trained in Rabindrasangeet. He was born in Calcutta and moved to Bombay and went to UK for higher studies – a trajectory Nirmalaya follows. That verisimilitude to real life is perhaps the reason why the novel lacks a story. The narrative charts the life of the three protagonists, paying great attention to the details of their daily humdrum existence, as they negotiate one unspectacular day after another. By the end of the novel, Mallika Sengupta’s husband is forced into premature retirement, Shyam Lal has prospered enough to own a sea-facing bungalow and has performed abroad, and Nirmalaya has jettisoned Indian music for the pursuit of philosophy in a fine Western school. Unfortunately, the narrative arc of the novel is never compelling enough.
Amit Chaudhuri devotes the novel to fine observations, some of which glimmer with keen insight, and he is indeed a very fine writer. Witness this description of a minor character: “He still had the awkward air of the young bridegroom who’d lifted the veil off his young bride to find an impossibly beautiful woman. Banwari hadn’t recovered from the burden of having a beautiful wife. Everything he did had an air of pained dignity and self-doubt; he felt compromised by his pitch-dark complexion, his (oversized) teeth.”
What comes through in the 400-odd pages is the writer’s affection for the city of Bombay, the passing of a certain way of life, and his passion for Indian classical music. However, the understated prose seems too ‘English’ when used to describe the tradition of North Indian classical music and this reviewer doubts that a Western reader will really ‘get’ it.
Elegant writing, while creditable in itself, does not make up for the lack of action in the novel: neither do the characters ‘act’ nor are they ‘acted upon’ in any significant way – an ingredient essential for storytelling. For a teacher of creative writing, the writer is strangely ignorant of the fact, or is insouciant. Perhaps he is subscribing to the notion of literary fiction that has gained great currency in today’s literary circles: fine writing at the expense of plot.