It’s been seven years since Amit Chaudhuri’s last work of fiction, Real Time. In between, there have been critical essays, a book of poems and an anthology of writings on Kolkata that Chaudhuri edited. Yet, reading The Immortals feels like one is picking up where one left off—here is that unhurried prose; here too, the characters one has come to recognize and feel a gentle affection for. And yet again, it is not the same stream one is stepping into, for—to quote Heraclitus, from one of whose aphorisms the title comes—one cannot step into the same stream twice; everything flows, everything changes, and in change is rest.
So it is apt that this book, which at one level is about music, should be informed by what Heraclitus called the “harmony of opposites”. In its pages, worlds and world views come not into conflict, for that would be too violent a word, but into counterpoint. Mallika Sengupta, a small-town girl with a melodious voice whose “moment had passed”, enters the corporate life of Mumbai in the 1970s by marrying the successful, self-motivated Apurva. But the real dichotomy that Chaudhuri explores through Mallika is not the small town-big city contrast, but rather a whole series of disjunctions—of class, ambition and talent.
Inspiration: Chaudhuri’s book is set entirely in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Mallika is poised equidistant from Jumna, her servant, and Nayana, the wife of her husband’s oldest friend. Jumna, who has nothing, offers Mallika both solace and a necessary “tinge of sadness”. Nayana, whose “natural, careless sophistication” could be enviable, is, to Mallika, merely odd. It is Nayana who is unsettled by Mallika and reminded of her own never-embarked-on singing career. Shyamji, Mallika’s music teacher, is caught between the memory of his purist father Ram Lal’s classical music career and his own need for material success, even if it means compromising on the art. Nirmalya, Mallika’s son, is at the cusp of being sucked into an irreversible either/or.
The character of Nirmalya is the centre, then, of the mirror-image clauses in Heraclitus’ elegant and enigmatic statement—“The mortals become immortals, the immortals become mortals”. In that perfect symmetry lies ambiguity. And, off the page, lies its conclusion—“living in their death, and dying in their life”. Nirmalya is able to see, at the age of 15 and a half, when things are both terribly simple and terrifyingly complicated, that in all its banality, his parents’ reality is surreal. That Shyamji’s pedestrian approach to music as a “job” instead of a “temple of art” hides something more puzzling than a desire for money, more disturbing than a betrayal of the “great artist” he knows Shyamji to be.
His opposition to his parents’ life and expectations is a calculated one, decked out in the artist-rebel’s conventional dress-code of torn kurta and faded jeans, but below that surface is a real movement towards understanding. His journey from blues to bhakti appears to his westernized friends “not so much perverse as dishonest”. Between the narcissism of the individual and the fraternal shallowness of the sangeet sammelan, between the mysteriousness of music and the impulse to domesticate it through recognition, between Banwari the tabla-player’s “machine-like” hands and the sound of the tanpura “like a god humming to himself” is Nirmalya’s “visionary despondency”. Like “his famous love of solitude”, this pose is not real. And yet, through the kind of contradiction that Heraclitus would delight in, it is by inhabiting the pose that the role becomes real.
When we leave Nirmalya at the end of the book, soon after Shyamji’s death, “the sudden melancholy” that he feels is “something without history, a dull, buzzing ache which had first announced itself to him during his transformation from a child into a young man”. Nirmalya not only reminds one of earlier protagonists from Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address and Afternoon Raag, but also of another, more distant twin— 18-year-old Miranda from American writer Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Old Mortality, which ends with the musings of a suddenly, and poignantly, adult Miranda.
The Immortals: Picador India, 405 pages, Rs495.
Porter once said her commitment was to “tell a straight story and give true testimony”. Chaudhuri seems to do both in The Immortals. Through anecdotes as “a kind of music” and through “the miracle of song” in “its complete union with, and absolutely necessity to, the world”, Chaudhuri, like Porter, seems to affirm—and question—the value of art in a world changing as rapidly and bewilderingly as the city of Mumbai itself. An affirmation of the voice of the individual artist that, Porter once said, may seem to have less consequence than a cricket chirping in the grass.
So, who or what does the title refer to? Perhaps music itself, perhaps the song of the cricket. Or perhaps, as the second epigraph by Buddhadeva Bose suggests, the human desire for “the momentary eternal”.
Sampurna Chattarji is a Mumbai-based poet. Her novel, Rapture, is releasing in May.
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