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

OUT OF INDIA, in recent weeks, have come one of the longest books ever published and two of the shortest. First we had A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's Gangetic novel in prose (a successor to The Golden Gate, his Byronic verse novel of a few years back). And now come three stories by R K Narayan, misleadingly called novellas, and Amit Chaudhuri's slim volume Afternoon Raag.

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project