The condition of a stranger in a familiar land is dramatized with beguiling simplicity and tact in this deeply moving fourth novel from the young Indian author (Freedom Song, 1999, etc.).
Jayojit Chatterjee, exhausted and embittered after a year’s worth of divorce proceedings against his unfaithful wife, takes a vacation as well from his teaching job at a midwestern university, and returns with his seven-year-old son Vikram (“Bonny”—because he “lies over the ocean”?) to Calcutta to visit his aging parents. Everything about this sentimental journey and willed plunge into harmony and amity is destined to fail, or fall short of expectations. Jayojit, an economist, can neither fathom Calcutta’s formless commercialism nor contrive a sound investment strategy for his father “the Admiral” (stricken by heart disease and diabetes and subsisting on a meager pension); his mother’s frantic efforts at cooking nourish neither son nor grandson; and Jayojit (ironically nicknamed “Joy”) supposedly works away at a book, yet a profound inertia settles over him. Thinking of a second marriage, he nevertheless cannot stir himself to try to meet women—and his custody of his beloved son is only temporary (two months a year). But somehow, magically, Chaudhuri makes of this virtually plot-free story a compelling drama of alienation and resignation. Every delicately chosen detail helps build an overwhelming sense of people out of place (once-familiar streets now seem un-navigable mazes), out of time (Bonny plays with plastic dinosaurs and pterodactyls), out of touch. So firmly does Chaudhuri limit Jayojit’s horizons that at the close, as he flies back to America and engages in conversation with a friendly young woman, their brief connection is summarized thus: “[Jayojit] felt not the slightest attraction towards her, and was reassured to sense that she probably felt none towards him.”
A pitch-perfect analysis of repressed and stunted emotion, and another triumph to set beside those of Desai, Rushdie, Roy, and especially (the Chekhovian master Chaudhuri most closely resembles) R.K. Narayan.