Elsewhere Histories

Real Time Amit Chaudhuri
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 

The opening story in Amit Chaudhuri’s Real Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) describes a young poet’s friendship with an older man, Mastermoshai. The first question that Mastermoshai asks the narrator, who was then still in his teens, is “Are you profoundly influenced by Eliot?”

The story is set in Calcutta. You feel that the literary passions bred in this city with a colonial past are already obsolete elsewhere. Yet they inspire a romance which is real and productive. That is what the young poet feels, too, after the years have passed.

Amit Chaudhuri’s other stories in this debut collection, Real Time, also concern themselves with the conditions under which art is born or the circumstances in which artists live. The book’s closing story, for example, is about Mohanji, a gentle and gifted singer trained in classical Hindustani music. He makes a living by teaching affluent housewives in Bombay how to sing devotional bhajans and ghazals. Lately, Mohanji has been feeling ill. He believes he has an ulcer. He also suffers from tension. This tension comes “from constantly having to lie to the ladies he taught—white lies, flattery—and from not having a choice in the matter.”

We get a clue here to Chaudhuri’s own art. He belongs to a very small group of Indians writing in English who are as good critics as they are storytellers. This skill at criticism is not simply the result of close reading—though that ability is in fine evidence in The Picador Book of Indian Literature that Chaudhuri has edited—but of a serious search for a reading public. His writing, both critical and fictional, subtly demonstrates for this absent public its most responsible function.

Fifteen short stories and a reminiscence in verse make up Real Time. Not all these pieces are as strong as the ones I have mentioned above. A real gem in the collection is the short story “Real Time,” which along with the story about Mohanji was first published in the British magazine, Granta. This elegantly crafted story recounts an executive’s visit to a house in Calcutta where a shraaddh, or memorial ceremony, is being held. The ceremony is for a young, married woman who has committed suicide by jumping from the third-floor balcony of her parents’ house.

Death produces a great absence, but here, in the story, the absence has more to do with the fact that the visiting couple knows very little about the suicide. They had learned of the death from an item in the newspaper. Grief remains remote. More than death, it is this distance that produces a blankness which, however, slowly gets filled with ordinariness, and even trivia. The narrative is so precise that it is with a tiny jolt that the reader realizes that this inconsequential ordinariness is what we usually call life. In Chaudhuri’s prose, history always happens elsewhere. It is like an earthquake in the heart of the Earth. What the writing registers are only the tremors and sometimes the shock of falling buildings.

In early 1993, a short while after the demolition of the Babri Masjid [mosque in Ayodhya, India, destroyed by Hindu militants] and the riots that followed, Chaudhuri wrote a travel essay about his return to India from Oxford. There he had described how the metal nameplates in the house where his father had lived in Bombay were now all blank. This had been done to protect the Muslims living in the building. “Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called incidents,” he wrote, “told me I was now living in a slightly altered world.”

Instead of huge, violent, or overwhelming changes, what Chaudhuri’s writings record are subtle variations on a more settled routine. The technique works because it saves history from the banality of a slogan. At the same time, it also carries the danger of slipping into a mannerism. Both strength and on occasion weakness are present in the stories included in Chaudhuri’s latest work, Real Time.