BOOK REVIEW / Death traps in the family: 'The Last Burden' - Upamanyu Chatterji: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
LIKE THE dazzle of silks in a sari shop, the novels in English coming out of India display an astonishing diversity of colour, texture and weight. Far removed from the genteel soap and luxuriant lyricism that we have been reading recently, Upamanyu Chatterji's book is half brilliant, and wholly harrowing. And to qualify our praise is not to condemn, for The Last Burden deepens and widens (to use Chatterji's own idiom) from a fetid gutter into a generous fjord.

Chatterji - who is a maverick civil servant in the once fabled Indian Administrative Service and who made his literary debut with the clever but callow novel, English August - wrote this new novel over a period of five years. Perhaps its contrasting styles measure the maturing of his talent, or perhaps they are intentional, an attempt to reveal the heart- changes of the protagonist, Jamun, a young man coping with the imminent death of his mother.

Returning to a family riven by rage, Jamun finds his life exploding into shards of violent memory and emotion. He confronts his bitter miser of a father, the crushed mother who has sucked him into her inner world of searing resentment, and his brother Burfi, married to a Christian who delights in tormenting and despising the old couple. While it is impossible to ignore Chatterji's skill at serving something as tough as hatred uncooked, it is here, at the beginning, that the novel repels the reader with its excessively scatological and prurient language. It is a fault that recedes as the novel wears on, but the ugly sounds ring in the ears: 'veins sprawl like maggots of sputum', a prostitute has 'HIV bubbling out of her pussy', music 'seems to ooze from the wrinkles between the crooner's anus and scrotum'. Even worse, this is not just the author's voice - he lends it to all his characters, so that the pious mother speaks in the same crude slang as her pseudo-Westernised sons, giving the novel a verbal monotony that is hard to take.

And yet Chatterji is a mercilessly gifted observer. So little happens (an old servant's death from consumption, a bout of love-making, a quarrel remembered) that we are amazed at how riveted we remain. He is able in a few lines to grant redemption, as when the adult sons playing with the dead leg of the paralyzed father, give him back, for a moment, their

childhood. It is a childhood filled with the incomprehension that a glued-together broken marriage breeds - the little Jamun never wonders why his parents don't celebrate their wedding anniversary until he discovers the terrible truth that his begetters are the exception in a loving world.

The world of lower middle class India is Chatterji's as it is no other writer's: 'Postcards, burps, to dip into others' letters . . . to wear striped string drawers instead of elastic undies and use homemade STs of discarded sari swatches and newspapers and two languages for interlocution at home - your own lingo with your parents and their age, English with your own quartet.' But Chatterji's comprehension of India goes much deeper than the social. It is the ending - Jamun's sad and serene response to the death of his mother, his acceptance of the burden of his aged father and the discovery that he is himself the father of a child he can never claim for his own - that lifts this raw, bleak fiction to an unforgettable moment of truth, not only about human beings but about an old and brave culture as well.

(Photograph omitted)