Amit Chaudhuri: Odysseus Abroad

In spite of its archly allusive title, referring to two grim literary classics—Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses—Amit Chaudhuri’s sixth novel, Odysseus Abroad, is a nimble-footed creature. It unfolds in short episodes, through bursts of elegant but edgily comic prose—a good deal of which is devoted to ruminations on canonical English poetry and descriptions of the joys of Sylheti cuisine, gently mocking the epic conventions of the poem and the novel it draws on. Breathtaking Proustian sentences flow languorously, coming to rest against breathlessly pithy interjections. But the pastiche seems more intensely haunted by another unspoken, if persistent, literary influence—that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Chaudhuri’s protagonist, 22-year-old Ananda Sen, may be a far cry from Clarissa Dalloway, but, like his possible fictional counterpart, he enjoys walking around the posh neighbourhoods of central and north London, where he is studying for a degree in English literature. The purpose behind his peregrinations, however, is not to buy flowers for a party he is throwing—on the contrary, he seems to be least interested in merry-making of any sort, intolerant of the din created by his raucous housemates. Rather, Ananda is on his way to visit his maternal uncle, Radhesh, who has retired early, on a handsome pension, into a life of indolence, though, alarmingly, also of reckless eating, spending, and the lack of basic hygiene (while he cleans himself every day, Radhesh takes a proper bath only every few months. He also prefers to use a bottle instead of stepping out of the warmth of his bed and walking up to the bathroom on chilly nights). A substantial part of Chaudhuri’s novel traces one day in Ananda’s life—as Joyce does with Leopold Bloom and Woolf does with Mrs Dalloway. In Ananda’s case, the day is spent in the company of his uncle and his “grumbling ennui”. By intimately documenting the dynamic between uncle and nephew—their weekly ritual of walks, meals, arguments, and affections—Chaudhuri explores the politics of race, friendship, identity, and (male) sexuality, through their amusingly conflicting perspectives.

While Ananda recognizably belongs to the upper-middle class Bengali milieu that Chaudhuri invokes in his fiction, Radhesh is unprecedented in the author’s oeuvre. A stark contrast to the genteel, mild-mannered characters of Chaudhuri’s previous novels, Radhesh is an anachronism. He pours almost a dozen spoons of sugar into his morning coffee, subsists on meals of chicken liver cooked in its blood, and claims to have remained a lifelong bachelor and virgin due to an inscrutable fear of contracting syphilis (though he confesses to have a glad eye for “maidservants”). In spite of having lived in London for the better part of his adult life since emigrating from Sylhet (now in Bangladesh), Radhesh has not outgrown certain provincial eccentricities, atrocious as these may be. So, although he dons a three-piece suit over his pyjamas before stepping out of the house, he does not hesitate to pull his sister Khuku, Ananda’s mother, by the hair in the heat of an argument in the middle of a London street. If Ananda pushes his uncle away in fury, he also forgives his transgressions quickly. He does this partly because he depends on Radhesh’s largesse to make his thrifty, student’s existence in London bearable; but mostly, because he, like the rest of his family, has come to accept his uncle for what he is—a genius, albeit a forlorn one, with a streak of perverse, if incurable, cruelty lodged at the heart of his expansive generosity. Compared to Ananda’s delicate Bengali constitution—he is afflicted with a vicious cycle of insomnia causing acidity leading to migraine—Radhesh is robust, full of a hedonistic, Falstaff-like appetite for decadence. He may be pinched when it comes to carnal pleasures, but a full-throated advocate of drinking 10 glasses of water to ensure that his bowels are vigorously cleared every morning. Unexpected as it may seem, Chaudhuri employs a Swiftian vocabulary to bring alive Radhesh’s quirks. It is not often that one encounters adjectives like “urinous” in his writing.

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