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Laughter in the dark

Audacious and laugh-aloud funny, Chatterjee's latest novel is also his grimmest, says Soumya Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2006 14:29 IST

Weight Loss
by Upamanyu Chatterjee
Hardcover
Viking
Price: Rs 495
Pages: 416 pp

In the introduction to his illuminating collection of essays, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, James Wood, one of the finest critics in contemporary English literature, 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 goes on to argue, “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.” Upamanyu Chatterjee’s work falls, very definitively, in the category of the “comedy of forgiveness”. Nearly all of Chatterjee’s unforgettable characters — idlers, itinerants, dreamers, dissemblers, egotists — are flawed in some way or the other. But his trick has been to be able to make us laugh with them, to strike some chord of empathy, to eventually forgive them their frailties. This “comedy of forgiveness” is Chatterjee’s strong suit. And it is shown off to compelling effect in this, his excellent fourth novel.

Weight Loss tracks, from childhood to death at the age of 37, the life of Bhola, whose “bio read as the life story of a man to whom some of the usual things had happened but all at the wrong time”. Bhola is bisexual, extremely intelligent, well versed in literature, languages (particularly Sanskrit — an old Chatterjee obsession) and popular culture and constantly striving to be at peace with himself, to strip the clutter away from his life. He is continually preoccupied with sex and running. But his passion for weight loss has as much to do with staying physically trim as with remaining mentally unencumbered and alert. “Gradually, his programme of weight loss expanded… to cover his entire existence. The maxim that one should shed what one does not need implies that one should tend well what one does.” Bhola is a finely imagined, persuasive creation and in some ways recalls Chatterjee’s most famous protagonist, Agastya Sen. As with Agastya, irony is Bhola’s natural element; the deadpan, devastating putdown — in which the person at the receiving end often does not realise that he is being put down — is his métier. Bhola can murder with his bon mots; but never is there any blood on the carpet.

The opening section of the book (which, among other things, details Bhola’s expulsion from school and the lengths to which he goes to keep it secret from his family) are outrageously hilarious. The bawdy bits — exaggerated, laugh-aloud funny — recall Philip Roth at his fizzing, energetic best in Portnoy’s Complaint.

The tone, however, changes as the book goes along; things get progressively grimmer. In many ways, Bhola is a thoroughly dislikeable character (at least one of the things he does is stomach-churning) but somehow — and this is Chatterjee’s most remarkable achievement — one finds it hard to detest him.

The author’s admirers will find that there is something new happening in this novel: alongside the old playfulness, there is evidence of a new tenderness. The pages that deal with Bhola’s relationship with his infant daughter are the most affecting ones that Chatterjee has probably ever written. They ring true and are deeply felt; yet, Chatterjee expertly always pulls the prose back from the point beyond which it would have become schmaltzy.

This is Bhola after his daughter has been taken away from him, as he begins to miss “the feel of his daughter’s head on his shoulder, of the fleeciness of her hair in his fingers”: “He glanced around at the tidy void of the drawing room. He had now no future left to petrify him. A million times, he had visualised his daughter and himself, in the years to come, saying and waving goodbye to each other in different situations… and each time that they would part, involuntarily the thought would squirm into his head: This might be the last time that you see her. While you plot away at your work and your adultery, she might during the same half hour be kidnapped, raped and murdered. So look at her long and carefully. Neither bark or touch her violently because you’ll rue it for the rest of your muddled and insignificant life.” This novel signals a new direction in Chatterjee’s work. Or, to be more precise, it heightens and carries much further forward the streak of darkness that was evident in Mammaries of the Welfare State. Weight Loss is not merely a book about degradation. It is very funny, but it is also deeply depressing. The despair in the brilliant closing section is unmitigated. Unlike his other novels, the final pages are shorn of redemptive hope.

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel is audaciously inventive, hilarious, poignant and immensely disquieting. You could not have asked more of it.