Observer Review: Real Time By Amit Chaudhuri Essay, Research Paper
When it comes to the crunch…Real TimeAmit ChaudhuriPicador ?15.99, pp184Something odd happens towards the end of Real Time, Amit Chaudhuri’s rather disappointing, even perfunctory, collection of stories. It’s not just that the genre changes, from fiction to autobiography, nor that prose gives way to verse – though these changes are striking enough. Everything falls into place in the section called ‘E-Minor’ (a title never explained), and the book comes belatedly to life.To Chaudhuri’s contradictory identity of being born in Calcutta, then brought up in Bombay, of having a British higher education and an Indian subject matter, is added the paradox of being an award-winning novelist whose verse is immune to the defects of his prose. Two of the stories here concern rites of passage under strain, traditional forms struggling to accommodate unfamiliar realities. No subject could be better suited to short-story form, but Chaudhuri can’t be said to rise to the occasion.In ‘Real Time’, a married couple attend a shraddh, a memorial service rendered awkward by the fact that the woman being remembered killed herself. We learn that the ‘mixture of convivial pleasure and grief’ characteristic of such ceremonies is missing, and Mr and Mrs Mitra have decided in advance that in view of the circumstances the catering will be scaled down to snacks, but the nuances are elusive.What the religious content of a shraddh is supposed to be is hard to work out – there’s a priest, apparently, and it’s customary to leave a small ball of kneaded aata (whatever that is) on the balcony for a crow to pick up (the crow being regarded as the departed soul come back). On the other hand, ‘people never remembered the dead at shraddh ceremonies; they talked about other things’. Before they arrive, Mrs Mitra tells her husband to behave as he would ‘in a normal case of bereavement’. Perhaps that’s what’s missing, a sketch of the norms that are being tested, so that outsiders (and literature is a means of communicating intimately with outsiders) can find their bearings.’The Second Marriage’ deals with a complementary ceremony, an ashirbaad, the round of blessings that will launch a woman on her way towards married life. The ashirbaad is held in Calcutta, though the bride and groom are now residents of Kensington and Bayswater. They both carry ‘their broken marriages like the rumours of children’ – a typically baffling phrase.How this ceremony combines the religious and social is, again, entirely unclear. The single most significant fact about it is slipped in only on the last page: ‘Naturally, he couldn’t be present at his wife-to-be’s ashirbaad ceremony.’ Perhaps this is an intentionally disconcerting effect, but it’s hard to be sure.Both stories are oddly paced, and feel cut short and there’s no obvious reason for one story, ‘White Lies’, to be twice as long as any other. Its material is spread more thinly, that’s all. Yet once he abandons prose for verse, Chaudhuri’s head seems to clear. All the expected changes happen in reverse. His diction, which can be fussy and erratic (’equanimous accommodation’, ‘unreliable and niggardly petitionee’, things happening ‘to co-incide in a chance intermission’), settles down and loses its stiltedness.His tone becomes warmer, more humorous. Above all, his command of detail improves beyond all recognition: the cut-glass Danish ashtrays placed strategically in an upwardly mobile though non-smoking household, the bath used to store water during Bombay’s perpetual shortage.The BBC – that’s the Britannia Biscuit Company – an incidental presence in a number of stories, is revealed as Chaudhuri’s father’s employer, an Indian subsidiary of Huntley & Palmers and Peak Freens: ‘…biscuits / dominated our shelves. I never ate them. / Bourbon, Cream-cracker, Nice, I was familiar / with them all, but rarely touched them’ – the exceptions being ‘the round things with jam centres’. Dodgers, by any chance?The 25 pages of verse at the end of the book offer not only more flavour but more nourishment than anything that has gone before.