OUT OF INDIA, in recent weeks, have come one of the longest books ever published and two of the shortest. First we had A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's Gangetic novel in prose (a successor to The Golden Gate, his Byronic verse novel of a few years back). And now come three stories by R K Narayan, misleadingly called novellas, and Amit Chaudhuri's slim volume Afternoon Raag.
This, Chaudhuri's second book, interleaves experiences of Oxford - where the narrator conducts a friendship with two Indian girls - and of Bombay, where a beloved mother sips her weak tea, 'watching the lane, in which Christian men in shorts are walking their Alsatians'. It is a meditation, a felicitous prose poem.
Oxford is intently, sometimes solemnly perceived; a meadow is 'full of its own presence'; a dark Anglo-Saxon love of offal is disclosed. The yin and yang embodied in the design of a musical instrument, Chaudhuri's tanpura, are tenderly evoked, and there are fine glimpses of rural India: of a village that isn't on any map; of an aunt's poems; of an art of the countryside, practised by relatives and devoted to the Hindu pantheon, an art which is in tune with that of Chaudhuri's prose poem, where the elaborations of the raag can be found, and, at moments, the stillness of village life.
His book is a very different thing from R K Narayan's The Grandmother's Tale, which is always eventful, always on the move. Narayan is long respected in the West as one of a company of great storytellers who write in English about places far from England. In the title story, he is himself present as a boy schooled and scolded by this granny, and accustomed to recite a Sanskrit lyric which says that the 'perfect woman must work like a slave, advise like a Mantri (Minister), look like Goddess Lakshmi, be patient like Mother Earth and courtesan-like in the bedchamber'.
He hears how his great- grandmother, Bala, was married in childhood to a boy who then deserted her. A priest ordains that the child bride must stay away from the temple unless the husband can be shown to be alive: widows are unclean, and this priest could well know all about the practice of suttee.
Bala sets off in search of her husband. Years go by in the twinkling of a paragraph. She catches up with him in Poona, where he's a thriving jeweller, married to someone else. Bala effects a ferocious and systematic, almost witch-like ouster of the second wife - a troubling act, strongly and sparely dramatised. Her feat accomplished, she settles into the perfect woman's posture of wifely submission. But her husband is the really submissive one. He
becomes a lonely and resentful widower.
The second story is about a miser, who also comes to a sour end: he is a bureaucrat who robs the poor and whose wife leaves him. We see him slip his gains into 'a specially-tailored inner pocket of his shirt, next to his skin where it gently heaved with his heart-throb'. It's a pocket that would be hard to pick. But Narayan asks, pointing the moral for once: 'Who is the real pickpocket?'
In the first two stories the dominion of men over women encounters the power that women can exert, and men are the losers in the battles of will that ensue. In the third story, however, the loser is female. Veena doesn't cook. She is writing a novel. Her husband Swami cooks, visits a stationer to buy notebooks for her ('the demand from novelists is rather heavy this season'), helps her novel along with culinary advice, and cheers her up with the reminder that even Shakespeare had his disappointments: 'You must have read how downhearted he was till his plays were recognised'. When her book is published it is made over by the trade into a best-selling collection of recipes.
This is a joke which might seem to be about to sink into a sarcasm directed at those imperfect women who want to be writers and at South Indian provincial simplicities. But it doesn't work out like that. It leaves you thinking with affection of a country where long books, short books and notebooks are objects of desire.
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