A New World by Amit Chaudhuri
Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest but possibly less known Indian authors writing in English. His language can verge on poetry and be as vivid as a movie. But nothing much happens in his stories.
That didn’t matter very much in his early novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song. Both were critically acclaimed. I can think of no better books in English about my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, but there only part of the story is set in Calcutta; most of the action takes place in the Hindi belt.
To get a feel of Calcutta, what it looks like and understand us Bengalis, the natives of Calcutta, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song are invaluable. They portray our ideas, attitudes and lifestyle. And the writing verges on poetry, which is something we Bengalis love.
A New World unfortunately lacks that poetry. The writing is fluid and flawless. But as I turned from one page to the next, it felt like a lazy summer afternoon. It’s uneventful by deliberate design.
Jayojit, a Bengali economist teaching in America, visits his parents in Calcutta during his college holidays with his seven-year-old son, Bonny. He has recently divorced his wife, also a Bengali from Calcutta, who has left him to live with her lover -– and gynaecologist — in America. The story describes his stay in Calcutta. In the process, we see his interaction with his parents, his parents’ relationship and his own relationship with his parents. There are also flashbacks to his broken marriage and his parents’ abortive attempt to arrange a second marriage for him with a Bengali divorcee. He had met her on his previous visit but they had got nowhere. She had backed out, he now learns from his father, because he had seemed to be looking not so much for a wife as a governess for his son.
Chaudhuri is excellent at portraying little boys. It was a little boy at the centre of A Strange and Sublime Address that gave that story a wonderful freshness: it was written from his perspective. Bonny, Jayojit’s son, is beautifully described too. The story comes into life whenever he is on the scene. It’s not as if he is naughty or mischievous or does anything special. Self-sufficient, unselfconscious, playing with his toys, just by being himself, he draws affection -– from his father, doting grandparents and the reader too.
A New World is all about relationships — between parents and children. Jayojit’s parents are deftly depicted. His father is a retired rear-admiral of the Indian navy. After a life of privilege, the old man and his wife now have to fend for themselves and count every penny of their dwindling savings. The retired admiral has to take the bus to the bank because he can no longer afford a chauffeur for his battered old car. But he is proud. When Jayojit wants to buy a washing machine for his mother, his father objects. His mother is disappointed, but she can’t go against her husband. It’s a traditional Indian marriage. Jayojit’s father doesn’t even always speak to his wife though they clearly depend on each other.
One is struck by how reticent and undemonstrative the whole family is. Jayojit’s mother affectionately teases her grandson and tries to pamper him and her husband and son with food, but apart from that there’s no overt show of love and affection. Even when Jayojit’s parents want him to extend his stay and spend a few more days with them, they ask if he can postpone his return to America rather than request him to stay on.
But Jayojit has to go back. Just as the story opens with him and his son arriving at his parents’ apartment in a taxi from the airport, the story ends with the two of them on a plane after being seen off by his parents. As the two of them tuck into their in-flight meal, it’s clear Jayojit isn’t coming back to India for good. He has found a new life in America. The New World.