21 March 2009

Aloof sentinel

The Immortals: A Novel
by Amit Chaudhuri (Picador)

A fifth of the way through this novel, one of its characters, a serious-minded teenage boy called Nirmalya, has a presentiment that he is about to figure in a narrative with a particular theme:

It was as if […] he was now to be caught up, if not as a player then as bystander, in a story of ambition; he wasn’t sure whose — perhaps his own, but if not his entirely, then his parents’, or other people’s, or could it be even the city’s itself?

Indeed, it could be. The city in question is Bombay, whose ambition is visualized, over the book’s chronological span of several years in the 1980s, in passages that observe new building on land reclaimed from the sea, or luxury apartment blocks sprouting incongruously in the middle of treeless wastelands.

Nirmalya himself lives in one such luxury apartment thanks to his business-executive father, Apurva Sengupta, whose job furnishes the family with chauffeur-driven cars and tea clubs. His mother, Mallika, is a talented singer, but her voice is not of the timbre currently fashionable. Her music teacher, Shyamji, the son of a revered Indian classical musician, shuttles between the worlds of serious and popular music. Soon Nirmalya too begins to learn from Shyamji, who becomes his guru.

So the stage is set for the story of ambition. Mallika’s musical gift is untrammelled by traffic with commerce, and to threaten her family life by pursuing “personal ambition” is unthinkable to her. Nirmalya — who, as it is wryly put, has “recently become aware of the fact that he existed” and is voraciously consuming philosophy — thinks his teacher ought to devote himself seriously to his high calling with no thought of material gain; but Shyamji himself thinks he can do both, to teach and play “the lighter forms” now, and retire to what is serious at some indefinite, ever-receding point in the future. “You cannot practise art on an empty stomach,” he complains.

This weighty schema is balanced by a comedy of manners. Minor characters fade in and out of the urban saga with a lovely ironic twinkle. Apurva’s boss is an Englishman named Dyer, “who loved Bombay, who loved ‘India’, that mythical composite of colour and smell and anonymous human beings and daylight”. There is a mournful, illiterate musician who “kept himself in the background (even his withdrawals were dramatic and meant to draw attention)”. And a bad painter whose work finds popularity with the rich is said, exquisitely, to make “pictures of smoky huts and indecisive village maidens”.

The city of Bombay is also figured as a character by the narrative voice, which, when not aligned with the consciousness of one character or another, often implies a generalized community of gossip. There are appeals to what is “seen by many”, and statements are justified “according to unofficial information”. Ascribable to this communal perspective, perhaps, are the sententious opinions that occasionally interrupt scenes, such as about the Senguptas’ maid: “the poor have a special ability, after all, to understand the torments of their employers, to empathise with them”; or when it is said of a flower arranger that she has “the efficient but somewhat provisional air of a working woman”.

An unusual kind of omniscience also regularly enables the narrator, or narrative collective, to observe and report upon what is said to be happening “imperceptibly”; the style can at times be creakingly ugly, particularly in the book’s overused neither-nor or both-and constructions. On the other hand, there are many sweet felicities, as when Nirmalya, enduring a treadmill test at the doctor’s, is said to be “stoic in his obscure errand”; when we are introduced to “an old man in white who sat on the carpet in a way that made it seem he could see all the way to the horizon”; or when the voice poses questions directly to the reader: “Recognition is partly imagination, isn’t it?”

Chaudhuri, himself a composer and musician, excels in the passages devoted to music itself, “the miracle of song and its pleasure”. The scenes of characters practising in private are subtly thrilling; and there are also more general arguments about the role of music in East and West; in the marketplace and in society. At one point Shyamji remarks upon the increasing popularity in India of the easily domesticable western guitar, in contrast to the traditional four-stringed tanbura, which is described thus: “its sound shocked you every time you heard it — like a god humming to itself, its vibrations difficult to describe or report on, the solipsism of the heavens”; at another point, when Nirmalya is playing the same instrument, it is described with marvellous compression simply as: “aloof sentinel”.

The Immortals begins by cramming in a lot of pluperfect exposition and often thereafter seems in a hurry to recount things in a general way (“Often, that evening”) rather than to linger in scenic detail. This somewhat alienating procedure makes sense if one reads Chaudhuri as deliberately contrasting the mere quotidian flux of events with a kind of timeless, otherwordly stasis to which his musician characters aspire in their art. The “immortals” of the title are those who have achieved such sublimation: “there are some singers whose voices are so melodious that they bring to existence, for their listeners, the fictive world of kinnars, gods, and apsaras, from which they seem to be briefly visiting us […] their music brings to this world the message of that other one, to which they’ll eventually return”. The novel’s perfectly judged final page performs an analogous return, like the reverberation of a plucked string dissolving gradually into air.