By Amit Chaudhuri
Knopf, $25.95, 352 pages
Reviewed by Sudip Bose
It wasn’t all that long ago when Indian novelists were all the rage. New writers from the subcontinent were emerging with astonishing frequency, though the lesser talents among them dabbled in a kind of false exotic chic, making a fetish of the distant aromas, rituals, mysticisms and customs for which, they believed, Western readers hungered.
Through it all, a few writers showed us a different India, an India rooted in the modern world. Amit Chaudhuri’s refined and elegant novels never overwhelm the senses with colors and spices. They never trade on cliche. Rather, they go about their business quietly, illuminating the mundane routines of daily life with the intense light of poetry.
Mr. Chaudhuri’s latest novel may occupy some of the same terrain as his second book, “Afternoon Raag” — both are meditations on Indian classical music and the role of the teacher in the life of the musician — but “The Immortals” is a sprawling work where its predecessor was slim, a canvas filled with numerous characters both large and small.
Whether Mr. Chaudhuri’s delicate, intimate style works on such a grand scale is a matter of debate; I’m not quite sure it does. But in its evocation of music and the artist’s life, Mr. Chaudhuri cultivates a pervading melancholy that perfectly matches his elegiac subject matter.
“The Immortals” is set in Bombay during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a heady time for a class of businessman with access to wealth unheard of two generations before. Into this world come the Senguptas — father Apurva, mother Mallika, son Nirmalya — displaced Bengalis who find themselves ascending into the city’s upper social echelons. As Apurva rises to the top of his corporation, the family becomes immersed in a life of poolside cocktails, five-star hotels and rarified company parties, while moving from seaside flat to seaside flat, one more luxurious than the next.
All the while, Mallika must dutifully play the part of big shot’s wife. And as a consequence, her great talent for singing remains largely undeveloped. To what extent can an amateur artist, with no prospects for commercial success, experience fulfillment? This is the larger question Mr. Chaudhuri is posing here. And though Mallika may not be able to abandon the role she has so expertly played for decades, in order to give herself over to her art, the possibilities are brighter for the Senguptas’ son, Nirmalya.
Nirmalya’s coming of age lies at the heart of “The Immortals.” Like his mother, he studies singing with the great Shyam Lal, scion of a legendary family of musicians, and as the boy grows older, he falls under the spell of Indian classical music while recoiling from the world of flash and facade in which he finds himself.
As Nirmalya discovers the ragas that form the basis of classical music, his understanding of what it means to be an Indian undergoes a sea change. While his friends absorb the likes of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and Gilbert Chesterton, their knowledge of Indian history restricted to the memorization of “dates of conquests and kingdoms, Ashoka and Chandragupta, Akbar and Shahjahan” — an education of mere rote — Nirmalya immerses himself in the prophetic poetry of Meera, Tulsidas, Surdas and Kabir. For his friends, “only Kabir, among them, was ‘hip,’ because he’d been taken up by Ezra Pound.”
In other words, Indian culture is largely defined, for Nirmalya’s classmates, insofar as it is championed by the West. Not surprisingly, these boys take pleasure in Rimbaud and rock music, while Nirmalya largely removes himself from their sphere, renouncing his immediate surroundings.
For Nirmalya, Indian classical music represents the ultimate art form, and he urges his teacher, Shyam Lal to light the way for him into this more hallowed territory. But Shyam’s younger students, much to Nirmalya’s displeasure, are interested only in lighter, more popular forms, and the teacher is all too happy to indulge his pupils.
The classical raga, for Nirmalya, represents an escape from the insular, upper-class existence with which he finds himself increasingly at odds. It “contained the land within it — its seasons, its times of day, its birdcall, its clouds and heat — it gave him an ideal, magical sense of his country; it was a fiction he fell in love with.” And thus, classical music becomes emblematic of a world slowly disappearing, for as the novel progresses, the high-rise apartment houses filled with well-off tenants encroach upon the seaside.
The young, of course, are idealistic, and Nirmalya’s privileged upbringing allows him the luxury of passing judgment on his teacher’s choices, the older man’s “pursuit of the ‘light’ forms, his pursuit of material well-being.” If Nirmalya judges all too easily, it is because he hungers so deeply for a guru figure in his life (though he may not realize it); his own father, steeped in the different world, cannot fulfill this role. Shyam (he who “lived in a world of transactions”) cannot truly fulfill this role, either, not in Nirmalya’s idealistic eyes. So it is Shyam’s musician brother-in-law Pyarelal to whom the boy must ultimately turn in order to play the role of disciple.
Although Mr. Chaudhuri clearly holds Indian classical music in a kind of reverential awe (his descriptions of it are expertly, lovingly rendered), surely the title must bear some degree of irony, for the eponymous immortals — Shyam, Pyarelal, the eminent forbear Ram Lal — betray a range of mortal flaws, toward drink and obsequiousness, toward what might be called selling out.
This befuddles Nirmalya, who expects his masters to inhabit a higher moral and aesthetic plane. “Although he could see that Shyamji was a great artist,” Mr. Chauduhri writes, Nirmalya “was trying to reconcile him to what his own idea of an artist was. Here was a man in a loose white kurta and pyjamas; a man who put oil in his hair. … A man who undertook his teaching, his singing, almost as — a job.”
Art is a job, like any other discipline, and in order to survive, the artist must live in the real world. This is the lesson, crushing as it might be, that Nirmalya must learn. And to learn it means taking that uncertain, yet inevitable step from innocence to experience. As Mr. Chaudhuri writes, summing up what eludes Nirmalya throughout, what lies behind his persistent melancholy: “But are not the great among us banal and mortal, even to themselves?”
Sudip Bose is a writer and critic in Washington.