BOOK REVIEW / Long, short and beautifully formed: 'Afternoon Raag' - Amit Chaudhuri: Heinemann, 13.99 pounds; 'The Grandmother's Tale' - R K Narayan: Heinemann, 9.99 pounds
Sunday 11 July 1993
This, Chaudhuri's second book, interleaves experiences of Oxford - where the narrator conducts a friendship with two Indian girls - and of Bombay, where a beloved mother sips her weak tea, 'watching the lane, in which Christian men in shorts are walking their Alsatians'. It is a meditation, a felicitous prose poem.
Oxford is intently, sometimes solemnly perceived; a meadow is 'full of its own presence'; a dark Anglo-Saxon love of offal is disclosed. The yin and yang embodied in the design of a musical instrument, Chaudhuri's tanpura, are tenderly evoked, and there are fine glimpses of rural India: of a village that isn't on any map; of an aunt's poems; of an art of the countryside, practised by relatives and devoted to the Hindu pantheon, an art which is in tune with that of Chaudhuri's prose poem, where the elaborations of the raag can be found, and, at moments, the stillness of village life.
His book is a very different thing from R K Narayan's The Grandmother's Tale, which is always eventful, always on the move. Narayan is long respected in the West as one of a company of great storytellers who write in English about places far from England. In the title story, he is himself present as a boy schooled and scolded by this granny, and accustomed to recite a Sanskrit lyric which says that the 'perfect woman must work like a slave, advise like a Mantri (Minister), look like Goddess Lakshmi, be patient like Mother Earth and courtesan-like in the bedchamber'.
He hears how his great- grandmother, Bala, was married in childhood to a boy who then deserted her. A priest ordains that the child bride must stay away from the temple unless the husband can be shown to be alive: widows are unclean, and this priest could well know all about the practice of suttee.
Bala sets off in search of her husband. Years go by in the twinkling of a paragraph. She catches up with him in Poona, where he's a thriving jeweller, married to someone else. Bala effects a ferocious and systematic, almost witch-like ouster of the second wife - a troubling act, strongly and sparely dramatised. Her feat accomplished, she settles into the perfect woman's posture of wifely submission. But her husband is the really submissive one. He
becomes a lonely and resentful widower.
The second story is about a miser, who also comes to a sour end: he is a bureaucrat who robs the poor and whose wife leaves him. We see him slip his gains into 'a specially-tailored inner pocket of his shirt, next to his skin where it gently heaved with his heart-throb'. It's a pocket that would be hard to pick. But Narayan asks, pointing the moral for once: 'Who is the real pickpocket?'
In the first two stories the dominion of men over women encounters the power that women can exert, and men are the losers in the battles of will that ensue. In the third story, however, the loser is female. Veena doesn't cook. She is writing a novel. Her husband Swami cooks, visits a stationer to buy notebooks for her ('the demand from novelists is rather heavy this season'), helps her novel along with culinary advice, and cheers her up with the reminder that even Shakespeare had his disappointments: 'You must have read how downhearted he was till his plays were recognised'. When her book is published it is made over by the trade into a best-selling collection of recipes.
This is a joke which might seem to be about to sink into a sarcasm directed at those imperfect women who want to be writers and at South Indian provincial simplicities. But it doesn't work out like that. It leaves you thinking with affection of a country where long books, short books and notebooks are objects of desire.
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 UK weather: Snow to fall in the coming week with sub-zero temperatures to last until early February
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
- 4 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
- 5 British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Mr Selfridge series 3: Actress Kara Tointon says 'we're starting to see his demise'
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after Wembley Stadium rant
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Taylor Swift banned from Triple J Hottest 100: Fans react to epic #Tay4Hottest100 defeat
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
George Galloway condemns 'racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag' Charlie Hebdo at freedom of speech rally
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks