Rs 495 | pp 405
Fortunately, The Imm-ortals is an Amit Chaudhuri book. Beautifully crafted, calm, lyrical, alive with everyday detail, gentle humour, a touch of irony. Unfortunately, though, it is an Amit Chaudhuri book. It is the literary version of slow food — laudable in theory but demanding a palpable stillness to appreciate the placid charm, the ethnic appeal and scrupulous detailing that stands in for a plot and makes up the reading experience. All 405 pages of it.
This is the story of Mallika Sengupta, a housewife who dreams of becoming a ghazal artist; her husband Apurva, a sophisticated boxwallah who tries to accommodate his wife’s ambitions; and their son Nirmalya, who we see transform slowly from a privileged little boy to a scruffy, angst-ridden young man struggling to find his identity in torn jeans and kurta, Western philosophy and Indian classical music. We meet their friends and acquaintances, domestic help past and present, office colleagues and their families and several minor characters who drift in and out for no reason except that it happens in real life. And we get to know Mallika’s — and later Nirmalya’s — guru, Shyam Lal, and his whole buzzing clan.
Shyam Lal kindles a passion for Hindustani classical music in the teenage rebel. Young Nirmalya believes his guru should focus on his own talents as a classical singer, and not waste his time with popular bhajans and ghazals. “You cannot practice art on an empty stomach,” says the music teacher. That doesn’t make sense to the sheltered teenager trying to discover himself through Rimbaud and Will Durant, slumming it out in buses as his father’s Mercedes follows.
The debate about art and commerce is not new but Chaudhuri, himself a gifted singer, contextualises it. The exclusiveness of true art is threatened by democratic demands and money power. Shyamji’s well-heeled students wish to perform on stage. (“Why should they only listen? Why shouldn’t they be listened to?”) Shyamji must promote relatives of his benefactors. And sing in religious gatherings. When the demands of everyday life overpower those of pure art, is merit devalued? Does a democratic approach kill art? And who decides what merits promotion — the guru or the power-broker of a record company?
In this painstakingly slice-of-life novel, Chaudhuri touches upon such issues as he crafts a Bombay of the 1970s and 1980s with his meandering, lyrical prose and the eye of the miniaturist. Not Mumbai, but Bombay — which fits his timeless, pensive style perfectly, and his loose theme of middle class life, of growing up and growing old as if in a dream.
With the Bengali mother and son’s devotion to their Rajasthani music guru, the corporate father and upper class Bombay lifestyle, The Immortals is reminiscent of Chaudhuri’s earlier novel, Afternoon Raag. Probably because both draw on Chaudhuri’s own life.
So it is not surprising that Shyamji (always Shyamji, never Shyam) with his legendary father Ram Lal (in whose name he holds a Gandharva Sammelan), and his accompanists (brother and brother-in-law), bear some resemblance to Chaudhuri’s guru Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale, son of Pandit Laxman Prasad Jaipurwale (in whose memory the Sawai Gandharva Mahotsav is held), and his accompanists (brother and brother-in-law).
Oddly enough, here music runs like an alluring stream that the reader sees but cannot feel — much like the way Nirmalya gazes upon the Arabian Sea from their home. Music has come alive in novels, like in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, Louis de Bernières Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s Jalsaghar (immortalised by Satyajit Ray’s film) or Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. But The Immortals worships music from afar. Bihaag, Malkauns, Lalit, Asavari… It offers nicknames and rules, shying away from the raag’s emotionscape. An odd couplet or two is the closest we get. Here, music is either an object of awed worship (Indian classical) or a path to material gain (popular music), and never the twain shall meet. Instead, Chaudhuri’s sentences often seem to take on the style of the taan, reaching different notes within the raag of thought, looping back, surging forth, touching upon an idea here, half a thought there.
His sentences are like an ustad’s expansive improvisations, embroidering sentences with soft suggestions, clear asides, and of course a host of semicolons. Don’t read The Immortals for music, or a story. Read it to slow down, as Chaudhuri dignifies the ordinary, weaving a familiar world of quiet charm through everyday hope and dust.
(Antara Dev Sen is Editor, ‘The Little Magazine’)