Friday, April 24, 2009

Artists and dabblers: thoughts on Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals

I’m finding it hard to articulate my feelings about Amit Chaudhuri’s new novel The Immortals: though I admired it a lot, it was difficult to get through. Part of this is circumstantial – things have been busy lately, there’s been some traveling and some travel planning and other things to keep me preoccupied, and as a result I’ve a) cut back on official reviewing for a bit, b) sidestepped serious literary fiction in favour of relatively light, fast-paced reading (exhibits: John Wyndham, the Millennium Trilogy, Simon Majumdar’s Eat my Globe, Surendra Mohan Pathak’s The 65 Lakh Heist). The Immortals was the exception, and what a hefty exception it turned out to be!

There’s always been a distinct, easily identifiable stillness in Chaudhuri’s work, which I find very appealing: a ear for the sort of quiet conversation that family members might have during their more unguarded moments when nothing of pressing significance is being said; little passages that might not appear to be “about” something in the conventional sense of carrying a plot forward, but which gradually reveal things about people and their circumstances, through the accretion of little details. The Immortals takes this form to a new level: it’s so marked in its refusal to be driven by a plot that even “slice of life” can seem like an over-dramatic way of describing it. There’s no question of picking it up for 15-minute sessions at various points in a hectic day – it’s demanding, requires patience, and is not recommended for the reader who needs a story with a beginning, a middle and an end (which has been the case for me these last few weeks). This book is all middle, like a fragment of a poem - the narrative is drifting and non-linear, the chapters aren't numbered or labeled, there isn't a definite resolution. Even Chaudhuri’s abundant use of semi-colons (where a comma would suffice - “She knew she could have been famous; but she had opted for the life of a Managing Director’s wife”) creates poetic pauses in the writing and conveys the sense that there are things left unsaid.

The Immortals moves between the lives of three people over the span of a few years through the 1970s and early 1980s: a young dreamer named Nirmalya Sengupta who acquires a strong interest in Indian classical music (at a point in his life when he’s trying to decide between studying economics and philosophy); his mother Mallika, the wife of an upwardly mobile businessman, and a woman who might – if circumstances were different or if she had been more ambitious – have become a renowned singer herself; and her music teacher Shyamji who, being the son of the revered guru Pandit Ram Lal, lives in the shadow of his father’s reputation, a permanent Salieri (“he’s only four annas compared to Panditji,” someone says matter-of-factly). Through the different levels of engagement of these people (and others) with classical music, a whole spectrum is revealed – a spectrum that extends from the rigour of Ram Lal’s early life and training to the more superficial interest in music seen among the cocktail-party crowd in south Bombay, where Nirmalya’s family live.

It occurred to me that though this book is specifically about classical music, its devotees and dilettantes, the questions it raises apply to other art forms too, including literature itself. We live in a world where art is losing its exclusivity and being “democratised”, where everyone wants to participate rather than merely observe. (Look at mass-market publishing, and look at how blogs have made it possible for nearly everyone to fancy themselves as writers.) At one point Chaudhuri describes a sammelan where Shyamji’s disciples – “from young struggling ghazal singers to businessmen’s wives, hot but bright in their saris, naked ears dressed provocatively in gold, whose husbands had put a full-page advertisement in the souvenir” – are interested not so much in the performances of the professionals (who have devoted their lives to their calling) as in usurping the stage themselves, to become performers, if only for 15 minutes.
Their relationship with music had begun embryonically, in their prehistory as listeners; they’d hummed along in an undertone with the artists they loved best, or loudly, solitarily, to themselves; and then, at some point, they’d asked themselves the unimaginable, something that wouldn’t have occurred to them six months before, or which they didn’t have the courage to admit: “Can’t I be a singer? Can’t it be me?” Why should they only listen; why shouldn’t they be listened to?
In the other corner are those who have come to symbolise an older way of life that has all but faded: people like Shyamji’s brother-in-law Pyarelal, who claims to have danced in Raja Man Singh’s court when he was four years old and who is described as “a jetsam of the old world, part of the coterie of artists that had been disbanded with the palaces...[he had] a bit of the stardust of the vanished courtly life around him”. And, perhaps, people like the now-forgotten music director who gave the young Lata Mangeshkar a memorable tune. When the elitism – and specialisation – associated with the higher arts has been diluted, where do these people stand? In such a world, do meaningful benchmarks for judging the quality and long-term worth of artists still exist? Who are the “immortals”?

There are other questions about artistic integrity. In two key passages, separated by half the length of the book, we get first Nirmalya’s and then Shyamji’s perspective on a conversation about whether it’s possible to dedicate oneself wholeheartedly to art when one has to think about the basic necessities of life. “Baba, you cannot practise art on an empty stomach – let me first make enough money from the lighter forms, then I’ll be able to devote myself to classical,” says Shyamji. “That moment will never come,” replies Nirmalya fiercely, “the moment to give yourself to your art is now.” Is this the simple-minded idealism of youth pitted against the experience of age and its understanding of compromise? Or is it the hard-edged stance of the genuine artist against the relatively lackadaisical attitude of someone who has given up too soon?

The non-insistent, gently probing way in which the book raises these questions is very effective. But if you do decide to read it, make sure you have plenty of time - and no distractions - on your hands. You can't read it with anything less than full concentration.


  1. I sometimes don't understand what triggers one's reading choices in particular phases - for instance, I'm right now on this trip where I'm reading all and any hard-boiled private eye type fiction that I can lay my hands on, and I found some heavier stuff really hard to go through simply because it didn't read like a fast-paced mystery!

  2. Yes, I'm in a similar phase. But it gets problematic when you're working on the books beat and occasionally saying yes when asked to review a heavier book - never quite sure whether it's possible to do justice to that sort of book given the frame of mind you're in.

    I can completely see why so many literary journalists start exploring other beats after a few years.

  3. Hi Jai,

    I have been a follower of your blog for a long time and have largely not posted any comments.

    However a lot of my reading has been influenced by your reviews (i would never have picked up say a Koji Suzuki at an airport if you had not mentioned him).

    I have now saved up some money and intend to do some major book purchases and look to your good taste for guidance. (i know we should all evolve our own tastes :-)

    Can you pls reco me some 10-15 books which have fundamentally influenced you. I mean those rare books which profoundly moved you and is perhaps must-reading.

    I will understand if you mind sharing that (these can be very personal) but if not too much, can you pls oblige.


  4. Jai,
    I'm confused. Do you like this book or not? Cheers,

  5. Aravind: on balance I'd say I admired it more than I liked it. But as I wrote in the post, my feelings about the book were undoubtedly influenced by my personal situation at the time of reading it - not having much leisurely reading time on hand, concentration being limited, etc. (This is of course true for one's reactions to any book or film, but it just felt a little more true for this one.) I'm sufficiently motivated to want to read it again sometime.

  6. I've liked his earlier writing. This book seems full of possibilities:)