Those Were the Days, My Friend

Not only is Amit Chaudhuri’s latest book a hat tip to the historical novel, it is also living history

Written by Sumana Roy | Published:April 22, 2017 1:44 am

Friend of My Youth
Amit Chaudhuri
Penguin Random House
120 pages
` 499

“The genre of the novel, for me, wasn’t a story; it was created around a visit,” wrote Amit Chaudhuri in Calcutta: Two Years in the City. “It’s an idea of storytelling based… on the holiday, rather than on narrative”. Friend of My Youth, his new novel, is centred on one such “holiday”: a writer called “Amit Chaudhuri” arrives in Bombay on a book tour, entering Bombay through “a new route”, a bridge that, with its “straight lines… geometry… inviolable sterility”, the narrator wishes lasted longer. “Everything you claim to miss — human noise, congestion — you cease to miss when you’re on the bridge.” This rhythm of breathing; of aloneness and congestion; of attachment and detachment; of two Bombays, one as old as his childhood, another new — this is silly, my trying to compress beauty into a catalogue of antinomies, but how else do I convey the effect of this astonishing book?

I read every sentence twice, just to be sure that I didn’t lose the sight and taste of it — slightly nervous and overwhelmed, like turning to admire the beauty of a stranger on the street. It is entirely appropriate that I do so, for this is a novel about revisiting. The place: “My childhood is trapped in these places. I can’t take it away with me. I reacquaint myself with it when I return. The knowledge that I grew up here is an academic one. The insignificant particularities are lost, until I confront a street corner or sign or awning. Then I realise that they’re there for some reason, waiting for my return”. The people: everything new is a version of the old — “I’ve been thinking how he’s become his father’s twin,” Chaudhuri says about Ramu, the friend of his youth who’s now missing from Bombay, a junkie on rehab in Alibag. The Taj, after the 2008 terrorist attack: “Sometimes to look upon the old is not to discover the past: it is to see power.”

This fluidity between the old and the new is the lifeblood of this novel — as is its quest to dismantle whatever distinguishes living from writing. “The Ramu I know and the Ramu I’m writing about have become indistinguishable. The same’s true of the Bombay I’m recounting from experience and the Bombay I’m assembling through words.” The choice of the narrator’s name — Amit Chaudhuri — as also those of people he thinks about on this visit, Ranjit Hoskote, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Adil Jussawalla, is neither a postmodern gimmick nor a (sub)version of the roman a clef. “The writing is not about life. It is a form of living. The two happen simultaneously”.

The subject of the novel is not only Bombay, its friendships, or memories of a childhood as regenerative as a lizard’s tail: it’s also the novel itself. Here Chaudhuri is as sharp as we’ve always known him — which other novelist could boo the novel as a genre with such humour? “I feel a surge of bile against a genre that’s squatted on the writer’s life for two decades — demanded submission; determined failure and success; defined the writer’s sense of worth or lack of it.”

Writer Amit Chaudhuri. Express Photo by Oinam Anand

Chaudhuri thinks this to himself while speaking to a journalist who’s come to interview him about his last book, The Immortals. In and around this conversation, he sets up some of his funniest asides: “Where’s The Immortals? … Should I glance at the pages? … must I ready myself for interviews and readings by consulting the novel?”. Moreover: “This is a proper novel, I think”. The dig is impossible to miss. It comes from a writer who began his career by writing a work that showed up the tired artifices of the conventional novel for what they were. “The ‘real’ story, with its beginning, middle and conclusion, would never be told, because it did not exist,” he declared in a proto-manifesto in A Strange and Sublime Address. Afternoon Raag, his second novel, is, as the critic Karl Miller wrote, less a conventional novel and more “a felicitous prose poem”. Every novel since then — Freedom Song, A New World, The Immortals, Odysseus Abroad, and this one — exemplify in different ways what TS Eliot said about Ben Jonson: “immense dramatic constructive skill: it is not so much skill in plot as skill in doing without a plot”.

Friend of My Youth is fuelled by sparkling wit. Here is Chaudhuri mocking the celebrityhood of the novelist while walking the backstreets of Apollo Bunder with Ramu: “No, people seem to recognise me here. I think they’re reading my books. Yesterday … a drunk got up and shook my hand”. The writing’s marked, yet again, by economy. Is this recurrent gravitation towards the shorter form only an aesthetic choice? The sentences in this novel are shorter, the sections more like stanzas. It is as if this is the way to rebel against the hegemony of the market: turn the novel into a poem, this most neglected of genres —“the location of the poetry section is still the bottom shelves”.

Life is short, its divisions shorter. How is one to express the speed and accumulation of childhood and adulthood? Here is Chaudhuri about his daughter: “Like jetlag, this slow-moving childhood from which she’s waking”. And here, just a couple of pages earlier, about himself and Ramu, who escapes rehab and appears in the novel’s brief second and third sections: “We are teenagers. We’re more than 50 years old, but things that shocked us then shock us now. Family; fatherhood; unclehood …; failure; near-death; the death of parents; the success of others — despite all this, the teenager is obstinate, and resurfaces at will”.

It is not just people who are in conversation with each other. The past speaks with the present, older people with younger versions of themselves. The two Bombays are in conversation, one in which art deco houses on Marine Drive stand facing the sea, the other in which the wooden frames of their windows have been replaced by aluminium, making a way of life obsolete (“The gesture by which you push a window open was now unnecessary”). Lines and paragraphs too are always in conversation. Amit remembers how Ramu had once pointed out to him, extraordinarily, that “life’s not for everyone”; a page later, a glance at a newspaper triggers a memory of the terrorist Kasab who, after his capture, moves between saying “I don’t want to die” to “I don’t want to live”. The repetitions, almost like incantations, like refrains, echo the patterns of nurtured memories.

Friend of My Youth, with its invocation of Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history”, is Chaudhuri’s historical novel: “I’m undecided about the time we live in. This ongoing passage to oblivion. The disappearance of things you took for granted. Then there’s the renaissance of things you never knew of, or presumed you’d never see again”. This is living history: “I will see Bombay again, but not the Bombay I’m looking at now. I belch and release the ghost of bombil”.

I think of Philip Larkin’s words every time I read Chaudhuri — “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, that’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn”. Having no appropriate vocabulary of aesthetic judgment with which to appreciate this novel for what it truly deserves, I’ll take refuge in a tribal or pre-modern term: This is magic, read the book.

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree

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