Book Review | This Place
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This Place | Amitabha Bagchi
In an interview with The New York Times in September this year, Jhumpa Lahiri objected to the use of the term “immigrant fiction” to qualify her writing. “From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar,” she said. “The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.”
In his third novel, This Place, Amitabha Bagchi could well have been responding to Lahiri’s case for a way of writing, and reading, fiction that is free of the biases fostered by a (largely well-intentioned) Anglophone publishing culture that seeks to promote voices from the “diaspora”. Set in Baltimore, in the US, Bagchi’s story features characters who, in the hands of a lesser novelist, could have easily become walking clichés—a Pakistani restaurant owner, an Indian cab driver turned accountant, and an Indian woman on the run from her newly-wedded philandering husband, among others. But in Bagchi’s sophisticated telling (except for a couple of somewhat unwarranted and cringe-making details of sexual encounters), the novel outgrows every expectation that the plot seems to set up for the reader.
Jeevan’s mission to stall the obliteration of a stretch of urban settlement that bears testimony to the advent of the railways in the US is supported by Kamran, Shabbir’s son, an aspiring journalist based in New York, and Kay, a white woman preparing to join medical school while biding time working as a pharmacist. In the aggressively capitalist framework of the American welfare state, the fight that these characters put up to preserve an obscure slice of history is but quixotic. To an extent, the majority of them have no real stake in putting up this resistance. As Shabbir tells Jeevan in a fit of anger: “This is not your history or my history. Our history is that we came to this country and we worked hard and fed our families…. That history is safe with me.” Yet history, as This Place suggests, is not just what people leave behind; it is as much about what they choose to embrace and make their own.
While there is a real urgency in the novel to explore themes of exile, alienation and assimilation, not for a moment does Bagchi lose sight of his primary commitment to telling an engaging story. In spite of the subtle but persistent focus on the politics of living in mixed racial communities, This Place is as much grounded in a geographical reality (as the title implies) as it tries to gesture beyond it, towards another kind of terrain—that of human emotions. Be it in the unusual romance that slowly crawls up between Jeevan and Sunita (the young forsaken bride) or the intense but troubled marriage between Kay and Matthew, the novel gives us access to a range of characters that are familiar without ever becoming stereotypes.
There are critical moments, when their behaviour may seem oppressively predictable, enough to leave the reader emotionally drained, though not without interest to reach the conclusion, even if it may seem inevitable. Such consistent excellence in the crafting and executing of plot is rare in most writers of contemporary fiction, perhaps more so in this part of the world.