Return to the lost city

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

During a press interview in Bombay about his latest book, the author-narrator of Friend of My Youth feels ‘a surge of bile’ against the novel. That imperialist bully of a genre has ‘squatted on the writer’s life’ and defines his ‘sense of worth or lack of it’. Our narrator, as it happens, is named ‘Amit Chaudhuri’. The circumstances of his return to the Indian city of his youth (but not his birth) match in many respects the author’s biographical data.

He’s talking, for a start, about The Immortals, the Bombay-set novel about musicians that Chaudhuri published in 2009. For all his rancour about the prestige of fiction, though, he insists that this latest work counts as a novel, not a memoir: ‘the author and the narrator are not one.’ At this point, readers unsettled by the hall of mirrors the French call ‘autofiction’ may be twitchily looking for the exit. They should stay: Chaudhuri is an exceptionally subtle writer, a sceptical seeker rather than a postmodern show-off. However you classify it, this journey through the traces of his past earns its literary sleight-of-hand.

In some ways, Friend of My Youth forms a pair with Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Chaudhuri’s overtly autobiographical record of his homecoming to West Bengal. The venue for his schooldays, Bombay (definitely not ‘Mumbai’, this city of memory) was the place where he grew up but ‘never belonged’, as he did to Calcutta. It remains an unfathomable friend — not close kin. In their quizzical semi-detachment, his explorations keep old haunts at a distance. He feels not so much aching nostalgia but rather — as in a church near his infant school on Malabar Hill — ‘the laxity of lapsed ownership’. The flow of years, that ‘ongoing passage to oblivion’, has deepened the absentee’s distance. Wherever he wanders, from park to
club to restaurant to bookshop, the narrator registers changes, in himself and in this richer, brasher metropolis — but also continuities.

The child is father to the man. Within the middle-aged author, endowed with family and reputation, the self-contained adolescent dwells: ‘the teenager is obstinate, and resurfaces at will.’ His Bombay survives above all in the fragile, mercurial figure of his schoolmate Ramu. This fellow-conspirator sank into drug addiction and, when Chaudhuri first returns, is sequestered in rehab. Ramu has ‘come back from the dead’ after a heroin overdose. As does their vanished city, its scattered relics unearthed one by one.

Friend of My Youth begins with a section (unacknowledged) from Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street. The German writer’s persona as urban flâneur, forever in transit between past and present, memory and vision, evidently guides its steps. In a book that (in a good sense) marks time, the narrator prepares for his next ‘leap of life’. Like Benjamin’s Angel of History, which Chaudhuri does credit, these elegiac ruminations look backwards but move forwards. You sense that Chaudhuri in mid-career has reached a portal, a threshold: like the Gateway of India monument that stands near his room at the grand Taj hotel — which he can now, after a little haggling, afford.

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