Books: A gentle rain of memBooks: ory

Aamer Hussein admires a subtle mix of family and history in Calcutta
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Freedom Song

by Amit Chaudhuri

Picador, pounds 12.99, 196pp

READERS ENAMOURED of the not-so-new wave of Indian writing - boisterous, energetic, exotic - should approach Amit Chaudhuri's third novel with caution. For Chaudhuri's is an art that conceals art. On the surface an unassuming novel, is, like his previous fictions, quietly experimental. After presenting a phenomenology of childhood in his first book, and student days in his second, Chaudhuri now gives us an elegant, lyrical meditation on the approach of old age. Yet this is a detour in a novel that metamorphoses from a gentle comedy of manners into something rich and strange. It takes us further "towards a home in the heart" than Chaudhuri has before.

Freedom's Song begins as a brisk, chatty story, pitched somewhere between Eudora Welty and Henry Green, about middle-class Bengalis. Place is crucial to Chaudhuri, and the setting is again Calcutta, his native city. Viewpoints are multiple. His characters are modest: Khuku, once a promising singer; husband Shib, a semi-retired businessman in charge of a "sick" chocolate factory; her brother Bhola and his wife; Mini, Khuku's teacher friend.

At an angle to their autumnal existence is Bhola's Communist son Bhaskar, whose commitment to freedom is restricted to rehearsing polemical allegories for street performance, and distributing party propaganda. Sandhya, his bride and the youngest woman in this book of women, appears late, adding her interior voice to those of Khuku, Mini and Bhaskar's mother. Other relatives make walk-on appearances, voice Calcutta's paradoxical vitality, then vanish.

It is the winter of 1992-93, when India is beset with the fear of conflict between Hindus and the big Muslim minority. A pall of menace hangs over the mellow Calcutta winter. Khuku and Mini echo vulgar prejudices about Muslims. Chaudhuri neither condones nor condemns their insularity but sketches a contrapuntal word-picture of the lively Muslim community, deeply rooted in Bengal. He then unfurls his major theme, which is not religious strife.

Nothing proceeds quite as we expect. Borrowed from a hoary Communist anthem, the novel's title, which seems at first a beguiling non sequitur, alludes perhaps to socialism and the nation's betrayed dreams. Most novelists would manipulate Bhaskar's street theatre into a metaphor culminating in sectarian violence; Chaudhuri, disdainful of obvious devices, does not even show us the play.

's final, subtly elegiac section reveals his overriding concern: the slow unfolding of personal trajectories around the dull pages of national narrative. Succinct as a miniature, this saga draws half a century of public and private histories into a few months.

Khuku and her contemporaries, products of Nehru's "new" India, are burdened with a wealth of experience. Four of them displaced by partition from East Bengal, they are more acquainted with discontinuities than their fortitude suggests. Fearful of change and yet, in a way, its quiet facilitators, they dwell in the twilight of their days. But as Chaudhuri shows with infinite compassion and grace, it is the light rain of affection and friendship, rather than the dark fear of sickness and death, that falls on them "like a merciful gift of remembrance".