Watching from the Sidelines
Amit Chaudhuri's short stories reviewed by Jim Herrick
Precision need not restrict, it can lead to delicate nuances and subtle bloom. Amit Chaudhuri is a writer of great precision; for him every word must count. In these stories, a rich collection, we find people and places depicted with depth and accuracy. His touch in portraying people is deft mixing sadness and humour in a Tchekovian way. The cities of Calcutta (which I don't know) and Bombay (which I do) have a reality that is rare in short stories. Real Time is superbly real.REAL TIME
£15.99 As befits a writer, Chaudhuri's concern with words is notable. He is a known supporter of Indian writing in the vernacular, but, perhaps like the character in 'Beyond Translation', he feels himself locked out from the colour of a different language. The character who aims to write an autobiography fails to begin and feels that "all of us writers who have still not written a word are impatient to disturb the silence". Disturbing the silence is what the two characters in 'Words, Silences' fail to do: in Pinteresque conversations two old friends meeting after 20 years fail to broach a key experience they had as teenage schoolboys.
Chaudhuri seems on the sidelines looking on at life observing with compassion and care, but powerless to change the frustration and sorrow that besets so many lives. A child in arms is "an avid, if powerless observer of life". Chaudhuri himself in a poetic memoir recalls how he escaped Physical Education and found a role for himself "watching from the sidelines". But his watching is intense and captures the essence of many people's lives. The end of the poem warns against looking "back over our shoulders". But it is the glance in all directions, including backwards and forwards in time, that creates this excellent collection.
There is a pervasive sadness in many of the tales. Someone who finds a job for an acquaintance finds he has recommended a bicycle thief and loses his own job. A woman learning to sing knows that she will never sing as superbly as she wishes, yet still yearns to learn. Her teacher, her guru, languishes, sickens and becomes treated like 'a pet or a child'. A second marriage might be second best, and yet creates happiness:
She'd discovered that to be happy was not so much a self-sufficient, spontaneous emotion, such as you might feel in relation to a dream or a secret, but a way of reacting to the rest of the world; that to be happy this time, she must curb the natural human instinct to look up at the sky, with its all-encompassing definition, and gaze towards the immediate ground and horizon, with its lack of shape, or abode, or clear ending. This is, as well as an apt description of second-best happiness, a superb comment on the stories themselves.
The title story is about a memorial gathering for a young woman who has committed suicide: an occasion when we see that life with all its trivia, trundles on. A morsel of food is put out for a crow, because the crow contains the soul of another person "such absurd make-believe". There is a gentle agnosticism in other comments on religion. The father who never mentioned God, nevertheless thought that "no one can change what God has already determined". To some schoolboys God was "an absent friend, a perpetually missing advisor, and an unreliable and niggardly petitionee".
Two stories are based on legends, but don't seem to me to be the best. A memoir in the form of prose poetry I find less convincing than the prose itself. There is poetry in the prose of the short stories. A man who has become a street entertainer finds "Calcutta is his universe; like a dewdrop, it holds within it the light and colours of the entire world". Chaudhuri's short stories are such dewdrops.
Real Time is available from Amazon (UK).