Review: Sojourn by Amit Chaudhuri

Published on Aug 19, 2022 08:04 PM IST

An accomplished writer and a trained musician, Amit Chaudhuri’s prose has the soulfulness and lilt of the ragas

The Berlin skyline. (Shutterstock)
The Berlin skyline. (Shutterstock)
ByAbdullah Khan

An accomplished writer and a trained musician, Amit Chaudhuri’s prose has the soulfulness and lilt of the ragas. Even his paragraph transitions are akin to a harmonic cadence or a progression of two or more chords at the end of a phrase in music.

176pp, ₹499; Penguin
176pp, ₹499; Penguin

Sojourn, his latest novella, takes forward his tradition of a melodic narrative style. The typical Chaudhuriesque manner of fiction writing doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense but still efficiently captures the smaller (and at times insignificant) events of the protagonist’s life, making them sound interesting and insightful.

The narrator is an Indian-origin writer who is in Berlin on a short-term teaching assignment. An idiosyncratic man, intellectual pursuits are important to him but he also cares a great deal about material things. When he is given a studio apartment in Berlin in place of the promised proper condominium, he threatens to leave the assignment mid-way. He is particularly disturbed by the smallness of the toilet.

Berlin entices and intimidates him. At times, the protagonist appears aloof and detached from his surroundings; at others, he is deeply involved in everything happening around him. On occasion, his sojourn brings him new insights and fills him with indescribable joy. But there are also times when he experiences traumatic feelings and even blacks out.

In Berlin, a city steeped in history, he meets Faqrul Haq, a poet from Bangladesh, who was hounded out of his country of birth for writing something that clerics there considered blasphemous. Faqrul speaks with a Bengali accent and has total disregard for his personal safety. The irony of his life is that he has managed to run away from his nation’s bloodthirsty bigots only to be almost killed by German Fascist gangs. Without delving too much into details about the rise of right-wing political groups in Europe, the author conveys that the legacy of Hitler’s Nazi Party still exists in Germany. If appropriate action is not taken, he seems to suggest, it could pose a serious threat to the country’s democratic spirit.

Birgit, with whom the narrator is briefly involved, is an intriguing character who keeps him guessing about what she wants from him and the kind of person she is.

And then, of course, there is the city of Berlin itself. Chaudhuri presents the place like a painter. Gigantic, historical and enchanting, the fascinated narrator-protagonist criss-crosses its streets and alleys capturing the grandeur as well as its darker spots. The Berlin wall, demolished in 1989, still looms in his imagination. He can see that the remains of history continue to exist on both sides of the wall.

Though the novel is set in the present, it keeps sending us into the wholly different past. It also examines weighty themes like the challenges facing the modern globalised world where cosmopolitanism and racism, migration, exile and different kinds of violence have become an integral part of human existence. A brief reference to Turkish-origin Germans speaks volumes about their second-class status in German society and the challenges of integrating them within the mainstream.

Amit Chaudhuri (Richard Lofthouse/Oxford University.)
Amit Chaudhuri (Richard Lofthouse/Oxford University.)

Then, there are the references to Hindi movies and Shah Rukh Khan and the immense popularity of Indian films in the country. It is also interesting to observe that most Indian restaurants in Berlin are run by Bangladeshis. In any case, both India and Bangladesh are offspring of the same shared cultural legacy.

Sojourn raises many questions about our contemporary world but provides no answers. Instead, it pushes readers to find their own answers.

Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai based novelist, literary critic, screenwriter and banker. His debut novel, Patna Blues, has been translated into 10 languages.

Story Saved
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, February 09, 2023
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals