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The problem with Amit Chaudhuri’s new book

Sandipan Deb
Sandipan DebMay 21, 2017 | 14:49

The problem with Amit Chaudhuri’s new book

Amit Chaudhuri is the most pointless writer I have ever read. A former colleague once put it rather pithily: that he writes about that moment between the cup and the lip. True, but Chaudhuri stretches that moment into a deathly boring aeon that seems like eternity.

I would not have survived this book if I did not know that I was being paid to read it. Of course, he writes marvellous prose. His lines are superbly crafted and his language is subtly overlaid with a quiet melancholy. In fact, I would go so far as to use the word “lyrical”. But if all that craft and lyricism end up in informing the reader that Chaudhuri climbed down a staircase and turned left on to a corridor, then the world should ask: So what’s the point, O litterateur?

Chaudhuri has an excruciatingly detailed eye for, well — details. Food, shoes, floors, windows, walls, furniture, nothing escapes his dour eye. You can read 2,000 tripadvisor. com reviews of the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, but you won’t get half the information that you will get in this slim volume. For, the Taj Hotel is mostly what this book is about.

This meandering non-story is about two visits that Chaudhuri makes to Mumbai. On one trip, he stays in one of the most exclusive clubs in the city, and on the other, at the Taj. He has had an extremely privileged childhood and teenage, growing up in Malabar Hill, son of the CEO of a multinational company, being driven around in a Mercedes, and enjoying brunches and lunches at the Taj with his parents.

book_052117020245.jpgFriend of My Youth, by Amit Chaudhuri; Penguin; Rs 499.

Here, his nostalgia fits perfectly into his general melancholia. He seems somewhat resentful that after his father’s retirement, the family had to shift to Bandra. And he seems utterly unaware how funny it is that decades after moving to Kolkata, his mother still buys shoes only from the ridiculously overpriced shop at the Taj.

In fact, in novel after novel, story after story, we have been told about his childhood in Mumbai (then Bombay). He knows nothing of the world beyond South Mumbai and even when he visits, he feels no urge to explore beyond that tiny slice of non-India (If he has ever felt the urge to venture north of Flora Fountain, he has definitely hidden it well).

On every visit to that city, he walks around the areas he used to walk around as a teenager. One can only hope that he was less gloomy as a teenager than he is now, or has been for the last 26 years he has been publishing his books.

However, back to Friend of My Youth. Chaudhuri has a school friend called Ramu who has had a severe drug addiction problem for years and has been in and out of rehab. Chaudhuri meets him, after wandering around the Taj and exchanging his mother’s shoes for a new pair. Here, he gives us an excellent portrayal of the staircases, corridors, shops and restaurants of the Taj.

If this book is published in Braille, a visually challenged man will be able to make his way around the hotel without any help. After his non-adventures in the Taj, Ramu and he walk around South Mumbai, and nothing happens. But then, nothing ever happens in Amit Chaudhuri’s books.

Friend of My Youth ends with, well, nothing. Ramu neither dies, nor is cured. Chaudhuri broods that he may never see Ramu again. I went to Chaudhuri’s official website. On the home page is a quote from Man Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel: “Amit Chaudhuri has, like Proust, perfected the art of the moment… (he) is a miniaturist, for whom tiny moments become radiant, and for whom the complexities of the fleeting mood uncurl onto the page like a leaf, a petal.”

I fully agree about the moment thing, as I said at the beginning of this review, though I disagree about the radiance and the petal part. As far as I know, Friend of My Youth could have been just a tweet: “@TajHotels Exchanged Mother’s shoes. Met Ramu. South Bombay. Feeling glum.”

A lot of trees would have been saved then.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: May 21, 2017 | 20:11
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