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Book of the week: Way To Go

Upamanyu Chatterjee spoke to Soumya Bhattacharya about his reputation as a writer, comedy, interviewers and his latest novel.

books Updated: Mar 20, 2010 14:41 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Upamanyu ChatterjeeWay To Go

Upamanyu Chatterjee

Hamish Hamilton

Rs 499, Pages 368

Upamanyu Chatterjee glances with mistrust at the digital recorder that I almost stealthily place on the small table of his hotel room. “You’re going to put that thing on, are you?” he asks. He makes “that thing” sound like an unprintable word; his arched eyebrows are eloquent: “You cannot be serious”, they say.

On the last occasion I interviewed Chatterjee — in February 2006 after the publication of his hilarious, poignant and disquieting novel, Weight Loss — he didn’t have a mobile phone. I didn’t have a digital recorder. Now he has a mobile and I have a recorder, which I clumsily set whirring.

Just to show him that things haven’t changed that much, I thumb open my spiral notebook and uncap my pen. That seems to reassure him.

Tall, trim, in a pink shirt and very high-waist navy blue corduroys, he sets about making coffee. He carries his ground beans and percolator. “No milk, right?” he asks, and slides the ashtray towards me.

Right. While some things have remained the same, some have changed. Chatterjee has a new novel out, and Way to Go (the rich irony of that title strikes you once you are deep into the book) is not, as he had told me four years ago, “a funny-depressing companion piece to Weight Loss”. Rather, it is a funny-depressing sequel to The Last Burden, the 1993 novel that Chatterjee feels was the “hardest to write because it was so full of rage”.

In Way to Go, that rage is somewhat sublimated. “This is a book in which the characters of The Last Burden are redeemed. I needed that. So that now, their story, that world, is over,” Chatterjee says. If The Last Burden was weighed down by the messy, visceral death of Urmila, the mother of Burfi and Jamun, Way to Go has at its heart the baffling disappearance of their half-paralysed father, Shyamanand.

“I was trying to suggest that you don’t have to die to disappear in a relationship,” Chatterjee says. “Look at how the brothers were living with their father. Even when he was there, he might just as well have been dead for them.”

Before going any further with the new novel, I get the English, August stuff out of the way. Twenty-one years since its publication, its shadow still falls over Chatterjee’s career. “It’s nice people remember English, August. A lot of people reviled it when it came it out. No one really read it then… No one really does now either.”

Lots of people have actually read English, August and many, including myself, consider it to be one of the most important books to have emerged from India in English. “Yeah, they call it a cult classic.” His eyes glitter with amusement, and he shrugs, as at some huge but mysterious joke.

“They”, of course, are reviewers and interviewers. “After Way to Go, one of them asked me why all my characters are so Bengali. Look, I need to have some depth in my characters. That’s why they are all Bengalis. I can’t imagine writing a book with someone called Saxena as the hero.”

He doesn’t much enjoy interviews. And interviewers are uncertain about how to take his deadpan drollery. “I don’t pump iron, I pump irony,” is a Woody Allen line, but it could well have come from the mouth of one of Chatterjee’s characters — or even from Chatterjee himself.

Way to Go is liberally sprinkled as much with riotous jokes as with gems of murderously acerbic bon mots. Set pieces, always one of Chatterjee’s strengths, turn up with trusted — and entertaining — regularity. The section at the police station that opens the book (riffing on authorities’ indifference and inefficiency masquerading as procedure and protocol: a familiar trope) is uproarious. And the one in which Jamun and his daughter (although the daughter doesn’t know that she is his daughter) go to a school function of hers is particularly affecting, and recall a poignant father-daughter motif from Weight Loss.

One of the considerable achievements of the novel is the way in which Chatterjee shifts register from the outrageously comic to the moving in a beat. Here he is on the house that Shyamanand built, and one that Jamun thinks of — were it to be demolished — with feeling: “It would remain standing only in the private spaces of Jamun’s heart, whitened by regret, shored up only by the obstinacy of memory.”

“I don’t give a shit when some people say they find this book unreadable,” he says. “I was happy with the tone of it. This is what I wanted.”

Have his novels got bleaker, more preoccupied with frailty and vulnerability, with dwindling, with thoughts of death, of ways to go? “Well, life is dark, isn’t it? Mostly, it’s dreadful. At the same time, death is funny too. I mean, look at the fuss we make of it. But, yes, yeah, this is a more growing-old book than the others. Perhaps it’s to do with my growing older.”

But the engine of the book is comedy, however dark it may on occasion be: dark enough for ‘dark comedy’ to seem like a truism, for it to invite the neologism, ‘white tragedy’. “For me, comedy is richer and larger than anything else,” says Chatterjee, who turns 50 this year.

The critic James Wood makes a distinction between two kinds of comedy. He describes the “tragi-comic stoicism which might best be called the comedy of forgiveness”. “This comedy,” he argues, “can be distinguished — if a little roughly — from the comedy of correction. The latter (Rabelais, Flaubert, Swift) is a way of laughing at; the former (Austen) a way of laughing with.” Where would he put himself? “Nnn, I’ll pass this one. More Rabelais than Austen, I suppose.”

I’ll hazard a guess here. Chatterjee’s unblinking eye and mordant wit make for fantastic comedy of correction. His remarks on “Honda-something cars,” celebrity-obsessed newspaper supplements and TV programmes are alive with engagement about the way we live, and who we are. Yet, there is something in Way to Go, something in its reconciliatory and redemptive grace, which show us his capability for the comedy of forgiveness. Is our greatest comic writer in English embracing both traditions of his genre?

It’s “early days for his next book,” Chatterjee says. Amid his IAS day job at the ministry of defence in Delhi, he writes every day, “to retain his sanity”. And he is in no hurry; four or five years pass between novels. So we’ll have to wait a while to see what the next one brings.

It seems to me, though, that the way ahead might be intriguing. And whichever direction he takes, Chatterjee won’t be squeamish about going too far.