‘Sandeep, meanwhile, had come to the conclusion that the grown-ups were mad, each after his or her own fashion. Simple situations were turned into complex dramatic ones; not until then did everybody feel important and happy.’ In Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address, Sandeep is a small boy, an only child who lives in a Bombay high-rise and who, with his parents, makes two long visits to his extended family in Calcutta. The book is the story of the atmosphere in the small house in Calcutta that they visit. Twenty-five years after its initial publication, Chaudhuri’s novel about a young boy’s view of family life and the world around him seems as elegant and exquisite and original as it did on its initial publication.
Sandeep watches his relatives, his parents, the servants and the neighbours, alert to everything—sounds, smells, domestic habits, moods, weather, plants. He is vastly amused by tiny details such as his uncle’s car which breaks down, his bustling morning rituals. He spends most of the time, however, with his two cousins and with the women in the family. He notices the women’s clothes and perfumes with relish; he listens to their voices in a way that suggests both a curious child and a budding novelist. He registers what happens precisely and carefully; the rhythms of the book follow the faded happiness of things, the strange remembered moments, but render them as urgent, present, almost pure.
Sandeep is smart, and Chaudhuri is clever enough and talented enough to let his observations stand for a lot, to let what he sees and hears become the drama of the book. He also manages a tonal high-wire act by convincing the reader that this is the world that a child observed, a child who knows no more than a child might—but also that it is remembered using the prism of a child’s gaze by a writer in possession of a rich prose style, a writer who does not wish to comment much, or offer analysis or additions.
The book then is both knowing and unknowing; the events are both experienced with immediacy and remembered with grace and care, but without nostalgia or too much easy humour. Chaudhuri wishes to evoke the past, and that is done not only with an undertone of sadness at the notion that these things are over, but with a relish arising from the power of what is remembered, the force of its detail, its physicality, its immediacy. Something that happened in childhood in this book takes on all the glittering excitement and precision of the present, as though memory itself can be more truthful and pressing than experience, or as though memory itself were, indeed, a kind of rich experience.
There are moments of evocative beauty in the novel, such as the family’s visit to the elderly relatives, the presence of a new baby, a rainstorm, the uncle’s illness, his time in hospital and his recovery. The book depends on its own tones and textures rather than on twists of fate or plot. It allows the act of evocation itself to have a sort of narrative energy.
The strange and sublime address is given as the house in Calcutta, followed by the names of the outer world, ending with Asia, and then Earth, and then the Solar System, and then the Universe. This echoes Chapter 1 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, in which Stephen Dedalus gives his address in almost similar terms. Joyce’s book deals with the growth of Stephen, who is viewed with the same earnestness with which Stephen might have viewed himself, as well as a glaze of irony—that of an author watching over his subject years later, as he sets out on his road to freedom.
Stephen Dedalus’s world in Joyce’s novel is both his private consciousness and the public life of his country. The tension between Ireland and England or between Catholic doctrine and liberalism are as fully part of the narrative as Stephen’s private perceptions or his arguments with himself. These tensions matter to Stephen emotionally; they become part of the nets that have him captured and which he must fly from. A Portrait of the Artist moves deftly between the public and the private, between ‘the smithy of the soul’ and the ‘conscience of the race’. Joyce allows Stephen’s experience to embody Ireland as much as reject it or evade it.
In Chaudhuri’s book, on the other hand, although politics and a sense of public affairs are allowed into the narrative, they are there glancingly, as part of the flavour of things, and are no more important than anything else. For a foreign reader, A Strange and Sublime Address is fascinating because it does not dramatize the legacy of Partition, or deal with the caste system in India, or use the novel to enrich our knowledge of large questions of identity and politics. The book normalizes and domesticates what is often presented as exotic or even alarming.
Chaudhuri allows his characters a presence that is fully personal, that is freely their own, rather than offering them to us as examples of what India is like now, or what colonialism has done. He does full justice to them within the limits of the actual world they inhabit. Because his impulse is essentially poetic or cinematic rather than political, these limits cease to matter—they blur at the edges or become insignificant under the pressure of acute observation and carefully controlled cadence.
Something of a similar nature happens in John McGahern’s book Memoir as the world of the child in relation to what is around him is captured in elaborate detail and with the effortless grace of a serious prose stylist. But the brightness which memory evokes in McGahern’s book serves only to make the darkness of the book sharper and more poignant. Memoir is not only about the pain of time passing, but the pain of what actually happened at the time. Such bitter shadows also appear in Joyce’s novel. In both of these books, some of the energy comes from the way in which the idyll of childhood and the innocence of youth are disturbed by adult indifference or by cruelty.
What distinguishes Chaudhuri’s book is his concern with happiness, the hardest subject of all for the writer of fiction. It would have been simple in his book to bring in the drama of family conflict or some nightmare images of poverty and destitution. Instead, A Strange and Sublime Address is concerned to register ease and fullness, but without nostalgia or sentimentality or false pleading. The evocations of ease and tolerance are captured in the tone of the prose itself, the unstretched and languid style, the exact and unforced descriptions, the mildly amused ironic undertones.
In other evocative and poetic books which deal with images of childhood—books such as The Diary of Helena Morley, translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Bishop, or some sections of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words, or Emmanuelle Guattari’s I, Little Asylum, or the moments in Proust which deal with the boy and his grandmother at Balbec—there is also a sense of tender particularity, of the need to write down what it was like so that those rooms and voices will not fade, will not be forgotten. The power rests in that urge to remember, capture and hold. The greater the precision, it seems, the more the book seems to propel that power outwards, to the reader who knew nothing of the particular moment but feels and shares the impulse to record.
What is universal in this context is the battle between innocence and experience. Each thing seen and noticed, no matter how innocently, adds to the richness of the self. When Chaudhuri sees saris being washed by a servant, for example, he writes: ‘Later, she would wring the saris into long, exhausted pythons of cloth.’ This very act of noticing moves the boy from mere observer to consummate describer; making metaphors allows both him and the reader to see more clearly. The boy’s mind appears more complex as it takes the world in. He becomes an emerging character in his own fiction.
As the experience of seeing and registering continues, a sort of innocence is maintained in Chaudhuri’s book. When the boys see the pigeons mating, for example, they can make no sense of the movements, although the reader can. And then there is the matter of time, which is the essential theme of a book in which the writer imagines a Bengal returning ‘to that original darkness’, untouched by time, a ‘Bengal of the bullock-cart and the earthen lamp’. And the urge to slow down moments, such as at meals when there is a sudden silence, ‘a gap of hushed clarity’, as though the camera of the novel stopped, or the clock stopped, or memory froze a single moment that is gone.
What happens to time in the book is not merely that it fades, it is also remembered. Memory, then, as much as time, slowly becomes Chaudhuri’s governing theme. One of the characters is brought back in time by taste: ‘Each time he put a small dollop of the yoghurt in his mouth, and chewed on the khoi patiently he tasted his childhood. It was made of the sourness of yoghurt, the sweetness of sugar, and the grey taste of bananas. Also the warmth of his mother’s fingers from which he ate the mixture. It was as if his memory resided in the small, invisible taste-buds in his tongue rather than in his brain.’
But what is at the heart of the enterprise is delicacy. Chaudhuri handles how things looked and felt and sounded not only with the attention of a born noticer, but also with supreme tact. The drama comes in the phrasing, as though the book had found a melody early on which not only evoked this world of children and family and servants and the city, but represented the essence of things and then transformed them into beauty, much as a painter might, or a singer, but in ways that are oddly rare in prose narrative and all the more sublime for that.