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The Universe of Calcutta

REAL TIME: Stories and a Reminiscence, By Amit Chaudhuri, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 192 pp., $21

April 21, 2002|SHASHI THAROOR | Shashi Tharoor is the author of "The Great Indian Novel" and, most recently, of the novel "Riot."

If the world of letters has begun paying more attention of late to Indian writing in English, the time has certainly come to pay tribute to its astonishing diversity. Gone are the days when Indian novelists could be lumped together as "Midnight's Children," heirs to Salman Rushdie's triumphant insertion of the larger-than-life histories and myths of the subcontinent into the canon of English literature.

Now they paint on a broader canvas, or on several, with an output ranging from sly comedies of manners to rodomontade reinventions of history, from the soaring fantasies of magical realism to the meticulously observed depiction of daily life in contemporary India.

Amit Chaudhuri made that final category virtually his own in three slender novels, which an American publisher finally issued in one volume, the well-received "Freedom Song," in 1999. His new collection, "Real Time," is marked by the same languid love of detail and absence of drama.

The book's subtitle, "Stories and a Reminiscence," is slightly misleading. Many of the pieces in this volume are not stories but ruminations, and the reminiscence appears as 26 pages of blank verse, charming but literal in its evocation of the author's childhood ("To write about it in verse/ is to make palpable to myself the experience"). But "Real Time" nonetheless showcases many of the strengths and limitations of Chaudhuri's writing.

As one might expect, several of the author's tales are not short stories so much as slices of life, tenderly evoked in abundant detail. Some are unabashedly autobiographical, and one is a somewhat vainglorious meditation on the author's celebrity as a writer, redeemed only by its closing sentence: "There are a few who spit on me, because they think I am not worthy."

But aside from two whimsically playful reinventions of episodes from Hindu mythology, "Real Time" is a symphony in one register. It conjures a middle-class urban Indian world with precise and loving evocations of place and setting--complete with a litany of untranslated Bengali words and Indian brand names (Britannia biscuits, Larsen & Toubro, Limca).

Chaudhuri's writing is touched by a rare delicacy of description ("the heat had just ebbed into a cloudy, dream-like vacancy") and a keen sense of the unwritten, unspoken rules that govern human relationships, particularly in a society in which so much is dictated by the expectations flowing from age, caste, gender and economic class.

He understands better than most how people are complicit in their own elisions. But nothing much happens in Chaudhuri's fiction; in his books, in a curious reversal of the uncertainty principle, the act of observation does nothing at all to the objects being observed.

So the writing is key. While it would be unfair to any writer to speak of a "typical" paragraph, it is useful to consider one that is fairly representative of Chaudhuri:

"'She just finished her bath,'" said Anjali (who was wearing a light brown salwaar kameez herself), cheerfully announcing, in medias res, the progress of an episode that concerned us all. 'Say hello to Mohon jethu and Romola mashi. Is it jethu or kaku?' she asked, looking at me, distracted. She looked pretty after the bath that she herself had had, and the brown salwaar kameez was rather lovely. I looked at her and gave her a smile of recognition you sometimes give someone with whom you spend almost every hour of the day."

There, in five sentences, is the distilled essence of Chaudhuri: the patience with details so unremarkable that other writers might not have deigned to notice them; the consciousness of the importance of precisely delineating relationships ("jethu" and "kaku" are Bengali designations for uncles older and younger, respectively, than one's father); the simple innocence of the narrator's use of language, which masks a deeper insight into the nature of human feeling. This kind of writing will move some and exasperate others; in this collection of stories, both reactions are unavoidable.

Is a gift for observation and empathy enough in a writer of fiction? In the title story, about a couple who go to a wake for a young woman who committed suicide by throwing herself off her parents' balcony, there is an unsatisfying sense of possibilities raised and not explored. The absence of either dramatic tension or resolution affects most of the stories, some of which, such as "The Party," are delightful vignettes but little more. A couple of the pieces appear to have been tossed off rather lightly and do not seem ready to be anthologized.

Chaudhuri's insights are often interesting, but they are sometimes spelled out in an over-expository fashion, so that in some cases the explanation becomes the essence of the story, as it does in "The Old Masters," whose last two sentences sum up the point for the reader with an explicitness rendered all the more curious by the author's refusal to even hint at the purpose of some of his other pensees.

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