A stylish if rather slight miscellany of 15 stories and a verse memoir, by the accomplished Indian author (A New World, 2000; Freedom Song, 1999).
The stories are set mostly in Calcutta or Bombay and frequently turn on contrasts or conflicts generated by religious (Hindu-Muslim) or linguistic (Bengali-English) differences. For example, there are several seemingly autobiographical pieces, like “Portrait of an Artist,” in which a 16-year-old poet learns poetic tradition from a melancholy English tutor; and “Four Days Before the Saturday Night Social,” about a schoolboy’s approach to “the echoing, fantastic-hued chambers of rock music.” Little happens in Chaudhuri’s otherwise exquisitely fashioned fiction: witness “The Great Game,” a vignette that employs the phenomenon of soccer combat to underscore tensions between India and Pakistan; or an exceedingly thin few pages about a housewife’s decision to write her inglorious “memoirs”; or even “An Infatuation” and “The Wedding,” of tales from India’s classical epic The Mahabharata. More substantial stories include “The Man from Khurda District,” about a struggling domestic’s ill-fated befriending of a phlegmatic bicycle thief; and especially “White Lies,” a beautifully controlled piece about the addled relations among a “guru” who gives singing lessons to wealthy matrons, a “student” who hangs on his every note, and her increasingly impatient and frustrated husband. Elsewhere, mood and tone are more important than narrative, though evidence abounds of Chaudhuri’s remarkable gift for verbal precision and nuance (e.g., old friends meeting after a 20-year separation find themselves “reminiscing about our childhood as if it were a book we’d both recently read”). The author’s fluency is particularly well-displayed in the concluding “E-Minor,” whose 25-plus pages of graceful free verse vividly evoke their narrator’s Bombay childhood, conflicted family life and varied education, experiences in England and back home in India, and accession to marriage, fatherhood, and artistic maturity.
One suspects that Chaudhuri emptied his filing cabinet to fill this slim volume. Nevertheless, he’s a minor master, at the very least.