Anew novel by Upamanyu Chatterjee evokes both expectations and apprehension. Is he going to delight once again with the kind of impact that the now legendary English, August, his first work, had? Or is he going to descend into a sordid saga of frustrated, even grotesque, sexual activity and the search for salvation that Weight Loss, his last novel, represented?
Very early into Way to Go, his latest—and fifth—novel, it’s clear that he’s doing both. The trademark black humour is alive and kicking: At the police station where the son is reporting the disappearance of his father, the officer on duty asks, when filling in the inevitable form, whether the missing father is male or female.
Way to Go: Hamish Hamilton, 359 pages, Rs499.
Soon afterwards, the son recounts—in his head, of course—the singular lack of pleasure he experienced in his sexual relationships with both the female retainer at home and her son. Mercifully, he confesses to having given up on sex a few years earlier.
The son in question is Jamun, younger brother of Burfi, son of Shyamanand and the now-deceased Urmila. The characters continue some time from the point they left off in Chatterjee’s second novel, The Last Burden. And the novel begins with the disappearance of Shyamanand, now a half-paralysed octogenarian who can scarcely move about, leave alone run away from home.
Jamun, whom he’s been living with, sets off on a search for his father, a journey that is as much through his own mind as it is through police stations, morgues, neighbours and service providers. Along the way, his elder brother Burfi joins his quest. Frequent flashbacks reveal the symbiotic relationship between father and son as they chat in their small balcony, inevitably swatting mosquitoes and the reputations of neighbours.
As with most of Chatterjee’s works, you don’t read on for the story. To be honest, not a great deal happens by way of events, and the smell of decay, disappearance and death—ways to go—hangs like a pall over everything. You read, instead, for the characters caught in comic suspension between the absurdity of the world they live in and their personal conviction that nothing has much meaning anyway. This even as they diligently pursue their trade or craft.
Double role: This is Chatterjee’s fifth novel. Vikas Khot/Hindustan Times
Here, Way to Go does not disappoint, its cast including Monga the property shark who’s clearly got a mysterious secret; Naina the neighbour whose house is being razed to the ground and who herself disappears, like Shyamanand; Madhumati the globetrotter with an affinity for cats; Mukherjee, the doctor-tenant who smokes grass with Jamun and inexplicably—or not—hurls himself on to the rocks below.
Looming large over all of them, however, is Jamun himself—a loser by today’s social standards, still cowed into servility by the work he does, compulsively suicidal.
The cameos are flawless, as is always the case with Chatterjee. Neighbours, office colleagues, the servants—all are described with admirable attention to their physical appearances and angularities, offering visual, auditory and, always, olfactory insights that make both the people and the scene uncomfortably graphic. Look no further than Monga powdering his testicles profusely just in case sex is on offer later in the evening.
The real theme, however, is the relationship between father and son, coloured by a palette of emotions—from companionship to greed, from antagonism to anger. The quest for the missing father is perhaps a little too pat in symbolizing Jamun’s—and, by extension, all just-past-middle-age men’s—quest for meaning in his paternal relationship. The appearance of his pre-teen daughter in the narrative—her mother is Kasturi, the TV producer who has artlessly woven Jamun’s personal life into her soap operas—provides an additional decorative touch to the motif.
But even so, Jamun’s consciousness, through which the story is spun, delves into the depths of his experiences often enough for startling insights such as this one as he reflects on his body: “A temple it was, he had always believed without being religious, a temple, so he had taken care of it, ready, or so he had thought, at a moment’s notice to crawl out of it when summoned. His readiness, he realized, staring at a cobweb between wall and desk silvery in the moonlight, was way off the mark, inadequate, unapt, pointless.”
There’s truth about our lives in there, and its discovery is intended to be painful. Only a twist, quite literally, in the end provides redemption.
Arunava Sinha is the translator of Buddhadeva Bose’s My Kind of Girl, and of Sankar’s Chowringhee and The Middleman.
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In six words
Father, son, loss and black humour