Picador £16.99 (404pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

The Immortals, By Amit Chaudhuri

Indian novelists are a dime a dozen these days, but they all seem to write about crime, Bollywood or poverty. Amit Chaudhuri is not one of their ilk. Not just a novelist but also a classical singer, academic and critic, Chaudhuri is one of India's most distinctive literary figures. While lesser writers obsess over the heat and dust, he charts the by-ways of the Indian soul.

Chaudhuri's superb new novel is set in Bombay during the 1970s and early 1980s. It traces the history of two families, one bathed in corporate affluence and the other subsisting on its musical tradition. Mallika Sengupta, married to a high-flying executive, has never pursued a career in music but her musical interests are more than the casual hobby of a rich woman.

She takes voice lessons from a series of tutors, one of whom is Shyam Lal. Although the son of a classical singer of legendary fame, Shyamji deals in "the musical currency of the day... the songs with which a middle class of faithful, hardworking husbands and vivacious housewives expressed its dreams". Classical music, he gently points out, cannot be practised on an empty stomach. When Mallika's son Nirmalya asks Shyamji to teach him classical music, the tutor is nonplussed, but does his best for the boy.

Nirmalya has all the puritanical zeal of a privileged adolescent. While his friends drift into money-making professions, he walks the streets of Bombay in a torn kurta, carrying a well-thumbed copy of Will Durant's Story of Philosophy and dreaming of purity in art. Meanwhile, his father retires and loses many of his corporate privileges. Shyamji's fortunes wax and then wane quite precipitously, and the novel ends with Nirmalya moving to Britain to study philosophy.

At a basic level, The Immortals is about two families and their very different relationships with the world of commerce. Chaudhuri's portrayal of the attractive but often empty life of corporate executives in pre-boom India is masterful, especially because it refuses to moralise. The novel also charts the growth of a commercial megalopolis – Bombay expands malignantly in the background, its tentacles reaching out to grab every scrap of empty land.

Ultimately, however, The Immortals is a sustained meditation on the relationship of art and commerce. Again and again, it asks whether the two can have any legitimate connection but never proffers any simple answers. The theme, explored mainly through the reveries of Nirmalya, could easily have become precious.

In fact, it is handled with great sensitivity and wit. The narrator is always ready to deflate Nirmalya's more pompous thoughts, but never questions the importance of the young man's fundamental concerns.

The narrative is a mosaic of small events and beautifully observed details, but Chaudhuri is not just a miniaturist. Rather like Nirmalya, whose mother laughs at his penchant for converting "simple things" into "portentous adventures", Chaudhuri draws layer after layer of meaning from the simplest acts and events. The disappearance of a South Indian café evokes the end of the old world; a ride on a suburban train turns into an odyssey; biting on a Ginster's pasty expresses all the confusion and alienation of a foreign student in London.

The tone is often elegiac but never maudlin, and Nirmalya, for all his adolescent brooding, remains fascinating and likeable. Once he moves to London, though, Chaudhuri seems unsure about what to do with him and the novel ends rather too abruptly. That one quirk apart, The Immortals is a memorable work – capacious, multi-faceted but intimate, it is Indian to the core but universal in its implications.

Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot