Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri, book review: Wonder of London, by way of Homer

A tender and wryly humorous exploration of a young man's dreams

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Could one hold even London in wonder and affection?" Indian student Ananda Sen, protagonist of Amit Chaudhuri's new novel, remains doubtful in this tender and wryly humorous exploration of a young man's dreams and aspirations so far from home, probing identity, race, the sadness and allure of loneliness, poignant inter-generational friendship, and the importance of companionship.

In a largely stream-of-consciousness narrative –a nod to Joyce's Ulysses – it takes place during the course of one summer's day in 1980s London. The reader follows Ananda's ponderings and angst from his experience of community-living in Warren Street (taxing to the earnest student of poetry with a rigorous schedule for his classical Indian tanpura-playing and singing practice), to his tutor's room in University College (Dr Nestor Davidson is a delightful character), and onwards to meet his uncle, and "sole friend", Rangamama, in Belsize Park.

This, then, is in some respects a north London novel, but one that has a shimmering world beneath it, one of memory and shared family experience in Sylhet (now in Bangladesh) and the hill station of Shillong, as well as a familiarity with the power of the Indian epics.

Ananda is feeling disillusioned and often at sea in the strange coldness of his London; he had dared imagine it differently, of following in Indian poet, Dom Moraes's footsteps, to be discovered by Stephen Spender as Moraes had been championed by Auden: with "his sights … set on the Olympian, the Parnassian", hopes are now pinned on "some lonely editor tired of sifting through dry, knowing poems by English poets" at Poetry Review seeing the spark of life in his.

Uncertain of his place in this metropolis so other than the Bombay of his adolescence – only the double-decker buses and the red post-boxes are familiar – more at home among the Modernist poets than the white-faced English around him; separated, too, from the partying Indian neighbours upstairs by his appreciation of the morning hours; bewildered by his bashful sexuality, there with his female tutor in Medieval English – "Sex stayed in the air, like an absurdity" – Ananda at times loathes his sense of not belonging, but also sometimes revels in it: great material for the "pain" in his poems! He is at that fascinating crossroads between child and man, and has in his uncle an unlikely guide, Odysseus to his Telemachus perhaps, and there are touches of Penelope, and a little of the ebullience of Molly Bloom, in his mother, singer of Tagore songs and practical dynamo behind his father's career: "His uncle and he felt incomplete without her."

Rangamama, who lives in "Hampstead", or rather a dusty basement bedsit in Belsize Park, has a legendary status in the family, sending money back from his generous pension, having risen up high in the London offices of a shipping company, is another delight of a character, as convincingly drawn as his nephew, with a melancholic side to his jollity, revealed in the Bengali phrase that is one of his refrains and translates as: "There is a covering of moss over my heart."

The importance of "light and sound" is treated with Chaudhuri's characteristic eloquence, kindly humour, poet's gift of observation, and awareness of the redolence of each moment.