Book Review | Odysseus Abroad4 min read . Updated: 26 Sep 2014, 12:58 PM IST
Author Amit Chaudhuri's new novel offers a striking contrast to the genteel, upper-middle class Bengali milieu of his earlier work
Two men at sea
Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad
In spite of its archly allusive title, referring to two grim literary classics—Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses—Amit Chaudhuri’s sixth novel, Odysseus Abroad, is a nimble-footed creature. It unfolds in short episodes, through bursts of elegant but edgily comic prose—a good deal of which is devoted to ruminations on canonical English poetry and descriptions of the joys of Sylheti cuisine, gently mocking the epic conventions of the poem and the novel it draws on. Breathtaking Proustian sentences flow languorously, coming to rest against breathlessly pithy interjections. But the pastiche seems more intensely haunted by another unspoken, if persistent, literary influence—that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
Chaudhuri’s protagonist, 22-year-old Ananda Sen, may be a far cry from Clarissa Dalloway, but, like his possible fictional counterpart, he enjoys walking around the posh neighbourhoods of central and north London, where he is studying for a degree in English literature. The purpose behind his peregrinations, however, is not to buy flowers for a party he is throwing—on the contrary, he seems to be least interested in merry-making of any sort, intolerant of the din created by his raucous housemates. Rather, Ananda is on his way to visit his maternal uncle, Radhesh, who has retired early, on a handsome pension, into a life of indolence, though, alarmingly, also of reckless eating, spending, and the lack of basic hygiene (while he cleans himself every day, Radhesh takes a proper bath only every few months. He also prefers to use a bottle instead of stepping out of the warmth of his bed and walking up to the bathroom on chilly nights).
A substantial part of Chaudhuri’s novel traces one day in Ananda’s life—as Joyce does with Leopold Bloom and Woolf does with Mrs Dalloway. In Ananda’s case, the day is spent in the company of his uncle and his “grumbling ennui". By intimately documenting the dynamic between uncle and nephew—their weekly ritual of walks, meals, arguments, and affections—Chaudhuri explores the politics of race, friendship, identity, and (male) sexuality, through their amusingly conflicting perspectives.
In spite of having lived in London for the better part of his adult life since emigrating from Sylhet (now in Bangladesh), Radhesh has not outgrown certain provincial eccentricities, atrocious as these may be. So, although he dons a three-piece suit over his pyjamas before stepping out of the house, he does not hesitate to pull his sister Khuku, Ananda’s mother, by the hair in the heat of an argument in the middle of a London street.
If Ananda pushes his uncle away in fury, he also forgives his transgressions quickly. He does this partly because he depends on Radhesh’s largesse to make his thrifty, student’s existence in London bearable; but mostly, because he, like the rest of his family, has come to accept his uncle for what he is—a genius, albeit a forlorn one, with a streak of perverse, if incurable, cruelty lodged at the heart of his expansive generosity.
Compared to Ananda’s delicate Bengali constitution—he is afflicted with a vicious cycle of insomnia causing acidity leading to migraine—Radhesh is robust, full of a hedonistic, Falstaff-like appetite for decadence. He may be pinched when it comes to carnal pleasures, but a full-throated advocate of drinking 10 glasses of water to ensure that his bowels are vigorously cleared every morning. Unexpected as it may seem, Chaudhuri employs a Swiftian vocabulary to bring alive Radhesh’s quirks. It is not often that one encounters adjectives like “urinous" in his writing.
In striking contrast with this Rabelaisian world of defecation, flatulence, gluttony and temper tantrums is Ananda’s carefully calibrated intellectual ambitions. An aspiring poet, he is profoundly absorbed in the verse of the moderns, especially of Philip Larkin, and does not care for almost any literary activity prior to the 19th century (his palpable distaste for the ancients does not come in the way of his vague feelings of lust for his college tutor, Hillary Burton, a medievalist, who, in a bleakly farcical turn, loses her sight).
In the second year, Ananda has better luck with his tutor, Nestor Davidson, a moderately known novelist, who finds his poems promising, though perhaps not as much as his essays. Our Bengali Odysseus, stewing in self-pity and suffering from acute home-sickness in exile, finds a friend in his suitably named mentor (in the Greek epic, Nestor is the king who offers sage advice and hospitality to Telemachus, when the latter comes to him in search of his missing father, Odysseus).
Ananda’s decision to choose a London college over Oxbridge is also motivated by his incipient literary ambitions. He hopes to be noticed by Stephen Spender, the poet, who is a fellow of his college, for his verse, as T.S. Eliot had once chanced upon the young Dom Moraes. But again, in a sardonic twist, Ananda’s arrival in England coincides with Spender’s retirement from the college, leaving him to depend on Nestor for spiritual guidance. But the salvation Ananda seeks, as Chaudhuri goes on to beautifully show, comes to him as keenly during his weekly tutorials with the prim Englishman as during his weekly ramblings with his impossible uncle.
In spite of his fractious relationship with Radhesh, it is because of their accidental proximity that Ananda is able to recover a part of his identity he had never actively engaged with in his life in India. Having grown up in a highly Anglicized set-up—speaking English for much of his life, eating “lettuce sandwiches as a teatime snack", and “reading Agatha Christie and Earl Stanley Gardner"—Ananda realizes that none of these habits that distinguished him at home “counted for anything in London", as everyone there did those same things unthinkingly. Navigating this sea of familiar yet unsettling circumstances, it is in Radhesh, with his peculiar combination of British affectation and Sylheti uncouthness, that Ananda finds an unexpected but essential anchor.
Also Read: Book Excerpt | Odysseus Abroad