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HOME TO CALCUTTA, MUCH LIKE A STRANGER

One of these days, a writer will arise from one of India’s slums or from its impoverished villages and tell the rarely-heard stories about life in these insular worlds. But until that happens, we must content ourselves with stories by and about India’s middle-class or more frequently, about those Indians living in the West. Amit Chaudhuri’s A New World (Alfred A. Knopf, $23, pp.224) is a good addition to such fiction. The story line is simple and achingly familiar to those of us who have made America our home but frequently journey back to visit homelands and families left behind.

Jayojit Chatterjee, a recently divorced writer and economist who lives in California, is taking his young son, Bonny, home for the summer to visit his elderly parents in Calcutta. At the end of the summer and at the end of the novel, the two return home to America. During Jayojit’s time in Calcutta, we are introduced to his parents, their neighbors, the family doctor, as well as the larger neighborhood in which the Chatterjee apartment is located. With a few trenchant observations, Chaudhuri makes clear the insulated, middle-class lives Admiral Chatterjee and his wife, live.

Now retired from the Indian Navy, the Admiral still has the imperial, colonial air f a man used to being waited upon by servants. Father and son share a formal, slightly awkward relationship, as the older man tries to hide his bewilderment and sorrow at his son’s divorce. Jayojit is closer to his doting, traditional mother, who remains unnamed throughout the book. Chaudhuri captures well the paradox of a cunning, efficient woman who nevertheless kowtows to her blustering husband and her affectionate yet remote son.

Jayojit is a stranger to more than his father; he is a stranger to Calcutta. As a school boy, he was sent off to boarding schools and spent his summers with his parents wherever the Admiral happened to be posted. And his parents have only moved into their Calcutta apartment eight years ago. Jayojit has few ties to their apartment or to the city it is housed in. Thus, his trip does not have the emotional heft of a homecoming. There is little reminiscing about childhood, no nostalgic looking back at how a hometown has changed over the years.

Instead, we have nuanced, quiet observations about Calcutta that are trenchant but not infused with the genuine pathos and wistfulness that come through, for instance, when Frank McCourt revisits Limerick in 'Tis. Jayojit’s trip home is a visit, not a journey and his detached, clinical observations of life around him soon infect the reader.

Indeed, the pacing of the book is so gentle and slow, that initially, one keeps waiting for something to occur. Everytime Jayojit encounters a new character--the family doctor, a nosy neighbor, the kids playing Ping-Pong in the building’s lobby--we perk up and wait for the plot to move forward, for something to happen that takes us into the innermost chambers of Jayojit’s heart. But Chatterjee is strangely unmoved by the people around him and his brief, episodic conversations with the people he encounters do not result in any insights or revelations. Not much happens in the course of the summer that Jayojit and Bonny spend with the Admiral and his wife. Soon, the book attains the languid, sleepy feel of a Calcutta afternoon.

If Chaudhuri’s intention is to convey Jayojit’s numbness and grief in the aftermath of his divorce, then the tone of the novel is just right. But in order for Chaudhuri to pull that off, we need to know more about the magnitude of that loss. We need to care about Jayojit as an individual. And in order to do so, Jayojit must do something strange or wonderful or unpredictable or eccentric or unique--something to give us a sense of his humanity and individuality.

As it is, Jayojit is a cautious, mild-mannered man who is sleep-walking his way through life, the kind of man one might sit next to on a plane and never give a second thought to. Even his relationship with Bonny is understated and subdued. Jayojit has gone through considerable trouble to pull Bonny out of school to bring him to India and yet, he never talks to the boy about the divorce or about Bonny’s new life with his mother.

The novel’s real strength is in its portrayal of middle-class life in India. The scene where Jayojit and his mother plot to buy a washing machine before being shot down by the Admiral’s insistence that it is cheaper to hire a servant to wash the clothes, is an excellent snapshot of middle-class urban India--poised between modernity and tradition, caught between the competing urges of materialism and thrift. Chaudhuri brings to life the countless domestic dramas that make up life in urban India--the building association meetings where nothing gets resolved, the daily fights with tardy maid servants, the fear of watching life savings get eaten away by illness and inflation.

Chaudhuri’s writing is spare, precise, detailed, understated and unsentimental and the tone of the novel suits its protagonist’s careful personality. This unsentimental language works in a paradoxical way, so that by the time Jayojit bids farewell to his parents at the airport, one begins to understand the true meaning of Jayojit’s loss. His is not merely the loss of homeland that is the byproduct of immigration or even the loss of moorings that comes from a divorce. Rather, it is the tragedy of a man who maintains such perfect composure, who so controls his grief and who has so removed himself from messy emotions, that he does not even know that something essential is missing from his life. Although Chaudhuri’s novel is seemingly about a journey, its real theme is about the costliness of standing still.

--Boston Globe, Oct. 29, 2000

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