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