Notes from a Broken Neighbourhood

A novel set in Baltimore traces the lives of those who seek to belong

Updated: February 1, 2014 7:52 pm

The novelist has the blessing of the inexhaustible subject: you and me,” wrote Eudora Welty in an 1956 essay. And added: “You and me, here.” The title of Amitabha Bagchi’s new novel, This Place, gestures to that third element of geography. As Welty says, “fiction is properly at work on the here and now, or the past made here and now; for in novels we have to be there.” To reach “there”, the novelist evokes not just its streets and sidewalks, the sounds of its neighbourhoods and the texture of its dereliction, but allows his characters to strike their roots in its soil. It becomes the place on which they stand and view the world.

In Baltimore, Wire-country, a block of residences is about to be torn down, to be redeveloped into a spiffier address. It’s not a place with great history, or one which inspires great affection. Shabbir Ahmad, a hardworking restaurant owner from Pakistan, has been waiting for exactly such a plan of gentrification to multiply the worth of the houses he has been sitting on. For the American couple, Matthew and Kay, who have moved from Providence, it’s another stop where they hope to sort out the tangles of their marriage and thwarted ambitions. But, Jeevan Sharma, a maths postgraduate from Delhi who ended up as a rootless taxi driver in America, and never called home again, “had felt something like contentment here in Baltimore. He felt like he could stay in this place for a long time”. His friendships are tentative and unwordy. He talks baseball with Henry, a former war veteran. He sits on the steps of his house to hear his aged black neighbour, Miss Lucy, play the organ, the music like a caress on the broken neighbourhood. “It felt like it was pouring down from the brilliant blue sky. It seemed to be entering everything: the asphalt with its cracks, the empty parking lot across the street, the deserted factory building next to the alley and the traffic passing by on Howard Street beyond.” The manicured future of her neighbourhood does not appeal to Miss Lucy, nor does the offer of a better, bigger house. “It is not the house I birthed my child,” she retorts. A plan to halt the march of development is hatched by Matthew and Kay, with an unlikely ally in Shabbir’s son, a journalist.

In a world in ceaseless motion, where the migrant is celebrated, the tug of belonging, as exemplified by Miss Lucy, seems anachronistic. While the novel does set up the ideas of displacement and progress against each other, it does so quietly — without interfering in the flow of the plot — and without being reductive. As Jeevan’s trajectory in the book shows, belonging is also a pang that arises out of displacement. It visits one, uninvited, like an epiphany.

This is Bagchi’s third novel, and it is no exaggeration to describe him as a prominent member of the League of Underrated Writers. His first, Above Average, got tagged as a “campus novel”, with all its unfortunate associations, and obscured what it was trying to be: again, an exploration of place (east Delhi’s middle-class neighbourhoods) and ideas of masculinity. In This Place, Jeevan is a man remarkably shorn of macho-ness, who spurns the responsibility of tending to his parents, the adrenalin rush of earning wads of money, and who refuses to hit the man who torments the woman he loves — despite grave provocation. In this most laconic of novels, his inner conflict is hinted at, not explicated.

This is a novel tautly concentrated on plot and the unravelling of character, with no quarter given to linguistic hi-jinks. There are only a few false notes — the awkward sex scenes come to mind. At the end of the chapters, though, Bagchi seems to have allowed himself some liberty. In each coda, the authorial eye sweeps with tenderness over Baltimore in these lyrical passages of descriptions. “Sneakers hang from the phone lines, their laces tied together, irretrievable. In the quiet afternoon, their shadows move slowly across the empty street. A light breeze makes them swing like pendulums. The time they mark passes gently, unobserved.” This place, this “gathering spot” of feelings and experiences, is, like the life of the characters who inhabit it, touched by a tenuous beauty.

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