If I Could Tell You
Rs 350 pp 200
The narrator of Soumya Bhattacharya’s If I Could Tell You dotes on his daughter, is a cricket enthusiast, has lived in Bombay and London, and is set on becoming a writer. Clearly, Bhattacharya is keen to create a teasing interplay between his life and his fiction, evident from the very first word of the book: Oishi, the name of both the narrator and novelist’s daughter. Speaking of his work-in-progress, the unnamed narrator quotes Saul Bellow — “fiction is the higher autobiography” — and clarifies that, in the words of Philip Roth, this is a confession in the guise of a novel, not the other way around. The differences between reality and the novel become clear as the book’s tragic dimension unfolds; one should heed DH Lawrence and trust the tale, not the teller.
Love and frustration encircle the narrative like strands of a double helix. This is the tale of a character drawing from his life to write “a novel of unfulfilled ambition and hope, about fatherhood and wanting to be a writer”. It’s in the form of letters to his daughter, a structure that allows for reflection and digression; to Bhattacharya’s credit, such meditations are part of the overall flow rather than detracting from it.
The novel opens with Oishi’s birth on a Calcutta evening in 2001, and circles between past and present — the death of the narrator’s parents; his years in Calcutta and Bombay; his invested nest-egg; his time studying in London; meetings with his to-be wife; and their lives in Bombay. It’s when an act of naïve unfaithfulness comes to light that relationships are wrecked, a situation further complicated by the slackening of India’s much-touted growth by the recent recession.
The prose is compressed and lucid in portraying events and emotions, yet lyrical in description and detail, be that of monsoon skies, sunlight on a London park or a torn rejection letter. (Because of this display of control, the inebriated, Joycean ending comes as a surprising affectation.)
This is a narrator for whom literature has replaced religion — witness the frequent allusions to other writers. Of his time in London, he says, “It seemed to me that I wasn’t a real person in a real world but inhabiting the world of books that I carried around in my head.” Such solipsism unfortunately creates the effect of events happening in a bubble, unshackled from surroundings and social moorings — even though the gentrification of Mumbai’s suburbs, crumbling infrastructure and noxious traffic are often mentioned. This inwardness also weakens the portrayal of other characters: the wife, for example, appears only when she has a specific role to play, not being woven into the novel’s texture. The narrator refers to himself as unreliable, yet this unreliability — and his awareness of it — appears underdone.
The novel’s title is from a W.H. Auden poem. The blend of tenderness and tragedy in this tale “of hopes thwarted, of promises broken” reminds one of another famously-amended line by the same poet: “We must love one another,” he wrote, “and die.”
Sanjay Sipahimalani writes at www.antiblurbs.blogspot.com