|Amit Chaudhuri's first book to be published in the United States comprises three short novels and is a masterpiece of the telling detail--in one paragraph he accomplishes what might take other writers entire volumes. Consider, for example, this description of family life in "A Strange and Sublime Address": |
Monday morning came like a fever. Chhotomama would be at the dining-table, eating a rapid meal of dal, fish, and rice, trying to avoid chewing as much of it as possible before he rushed to work. Then he would rush upstairs where a pair of polished black shoes would be waiting for him like a long-promised gift. He would spend five minutes persuading his feet to enter the shoes, or the shoes to swallow his feet.... Over and over again he would shout "I'm late!" in the classic manner of the man crying "Fire!" or "Timber!" or "Eureka!" while Saraswati and Mamima scuttled around him like frightened birds. The plot of "A Strange and Sublime Address" is slight--a young boy spends his summer with relatives in Calcutta--and consists mainly of a series of episodes strung together. But the characters are so lovingly limned and the places so intimately described that not even a one-way ticket to India could rival Chaudhuri's rendering.
He works similar magic on Oxford and Bombay in the second novel, "Afternoon Raag." Again, the story is almost inconsequential: a young Indian student at Oxford must choose between two women. What's really important here, however, are the character's memories of his music teacher back in Bombay; his mother's morning rituals; his father clipping his fingernails onto an old copy of The Times of India. Likewise, in the third novel, "Freedom Song," plot takes a back seat to the delicate workings of familial relationships as two clans attempt to marry off a "problem" relative. What makes these three short novels so satisfying is the fact that the author's remarkable sensibility is more than matched by his literary skillfulness. For readers in love with language, Freedom Song is the answer to a prayer. --Alix Wilber