A subtly detailed picture of life in Bombay before it became Mumbai distinguishes this resolutely lyrical fifth novel from the internationally acclaimed Anglo-Indian author (A New World, 2000, etc.).
The book incorporates an interlocking chain of contrasts between two temperamentally opposed protagonists, their families and the eternally opposed polarities of art and commerce. Shyam Lal, arriving at young manhood in the early 1980s, is a classically trained music tutor and vocal coach who has swerved from the path trod by his father, a much admired singer. “Shyamji” has tuned into contemporary culture, “tak[ing] advantage of the musical currency of the day, of the songs with which a middle class… expressed its dreams.” Though Shyamji prospers most by indulging wealthy females in their pursuit of celebrity (think Slumdog Millionaire on a higher social level), he agrees to tutor the teenaged son (Nirmalaya) of wealthy Mallika Sengupta, still resentful that she sublimated her own musical gifts to perform as the obedient wife of a locally renowned corporate executive. As Shyamji balances his tutorial duties against carefully thought-out career moves, Nirmalya rebels, declaring pop music empty nonsense and demanding education in India’s classical traditions (he’ll eventually leave his homeland to study philosophy abroad). There’s potential conflict here, but Chaudhuri softens every sharp angle, eschewing drama for a Dutch-interior succession of luminous visual and verbal images that chart the fading of Bombay’s colorful elegance (e.g., when a popular café goes out of business, part of a culture seems lost forever) and the compromised integrity of fleetingly involved secondary characters (including Nirmalaya’s ill-fated father Apura, and his posturing superior, an Englishman who “loves India while helping to appropriate and reshape it”).
Chaudhuri’s prose is unfailingly eloquent, but this prim novel’s virtually plotless restraint repeatedly reduces drama to flat statement. We feel we know each word, because we’ve heard these songs before.