Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Strange and Sublime Address

idway through the first of the three slim novels in this collection, an Indian boy named Sandeep sets out with his uncle for an evening walk through the back lanes of Calcutta during a power failure. Sandeep is only 10, but he already thinks of himself as a writer, and he finds his curiosity stirred by each house he passes: the one with a dozing watchman, ''which gave the impression that the family had valuables locked away inside''; the one with the old man on its veranda; ''or this small, shabby house with the girl Sandeep glimpsed through a window, sitting in a bare, ill-furnished room, memorizing a text by candlelight, repeating suffixes and prefixes from a Bengali grammar over and over to herself -- why did these houses seem to suggest that an infinitely interesting story might be woven around them?''

Amit Chaudhuri is an immensely gifted writer who is less interested in one particular story than in all the bits and pieces of stories that make up ordinary life: ''The 'real' story, with its beginning, middle, and conclusion,'' will never be told, he warns us cheerfully, because it does not exist. This conviction may be both his blessing and his curse. His novels -- or novellas, really -- are crammed with breathtaking sentences, sharp characterizations, comic set pieces and melancholy grace notes; they are also stubbornly, teasingly plotless. At times, they seem artless as well -- as if the author were simply dipping his net at random into the stream of daily life in Calcutta or Oxford or Bombay and then holding up his glittering catch for inspection. At other times, when the patterning of these narratives gently reasserts itself, it seems to do so not in the usual manner of fiction but almost in the guise of another art form altogether: a dance, a piece of music or a half-remembered scrap of poetry.

So, as promised, these novels don't progress, exactly, but instead explore some exalted or uneasy temporary state, which occasionally throws off intimations of its opposite. In the first, ''A Strange and Sublime Address'' (1991), Sandeep, an only child, is intoxicated by the boisterous intimacy of his uncle's household in Calcutta, which stands in contrast to his more privileged and lonely existence in Bombay. At 17 Vivekananda Road, there is always something afoot -- a visit from a wheedling relative, a Sunday drive in the unreliable Ambassador, a trip to the market -- and everything is a matter of intense, almost undifferentiated interest.

Chaudhuri is perpetually delighted with ''the enduring allure of the everyday,'' and Sandeep provides the ideal conduit for his creator's lush imaginings. In the afternoons, the maidservant wrings the newly washed saris ''into long, exhausted pythons of cloth,'' and the ancient ceiling fan moves ''unreliably from side to side, like a great bird trying to fly.'' Even Calcutta's chronic power outages are transformed, improbably, into a daily miracle:

''Each day there would be a power cut, and each day there would be the unexpected, irrational thrill when the lights returned. . . . With what appeared to be an instinct for timing, the rows of fluorescent lamps glittered to life simultaneously. The effect was the opposite of blowing out candles on a birthday cake: it was as if someone had blown on a set of unlit candles, and the magic exhalation had brought a flame to every wick at once.''

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