HOW DO you begin writing about a novel that ends, almost cruelly, with a question? Perhaps with your own question. Why do the titles of Amit Chaudhuri’s books have these abstract words — a torchlight mistiness — that promise an escape from the this-ness of our printer’s devil existence? The ‘strange and sublime’ of his first novel, the ‘freedom’ and ‘world’ and ‘real’ and ‘space’ and ‘memory’ of his following books. And now, something even more abstract than that greatest abstraction, death — ‘Immortals’! But, as Chaudhuri says in the new book, “the answer is no longer important. The answer lies in the question, which is the result of suffering”.
While Nirmalya Sengupta suffers because he has no suffering, his mother Mallika suffers because, as a singer with a voice that could have made her famous, she wants both “the prestige of being, at once, an artist and the wife of a successful executive.” Shyamji, their music teacher and son of “heavenly singer” Ram Lal, suffers because he chooses the world over art, because he is not so much an artist as a teacher who has chosen “to satisfy the middleclass urge for music”. And the people around these three characters — rich men who support their ghazal-singing wives, the singers themselves with “their relationship with music…begun embryonically, in their prehistory as listeners”, the accompanists who remain invisible and surreptitiously scavenging for patronage — they all suffer because what they want from music is what music, with “its realm of ideal possibility”, can only promise but never fulfil.
The Immortals is the portrait of an artist as a young man, and a little more — it is also the portrait of a young man as an artist, or at least, a young man trying hard to obtain the paraphernalia that befits an artist. There he is, wearing the same clothes repeatedly, rejecting his father’s Mercedes, reading Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy everywhere — at bus stops, on the bus, in transit — and feeling “exceptionally ancient, as if he’d been travelling for centuries”. And Chaudhuri also limns a portrait of the artist as an older man: Shyamji’s “weakness was life itself — life and its material reward”.
“An artist must devote himself to the highest expressions of his art and reject success,” thinks Nirmalya, and then, after Shyamji’s death, begins to see his guru’s life “as a series of errors in judgment: choosing glamour over art, light music over classical, death over life”. Chaudhuri cleverly places Shyamji between two “true” artists — his father and his student. Through this, he draws a genealogy of the classical musician over the last 50 years. He also shows how ideas alien to the world of Indian classical music — the constitutional ideas of equality and democracy, for example — and the changing institutions of patronage, from king to company director to the student paying tuition fees to the music teacher, have knelled the death of art.
Chaudhuri’s novel is about the intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood, a long childhood in an older world where boredom and daydreaming are still legitimate. But all is not inexperience: the philosopher George Santayana moves in Chaudhuri’s pages as Thomas Aquinas did in James Joyce’s novel. Chaudhuri takes care to press the point in the naming of his characters: Nirmalya (offering to the gods), Mallika (flower), Apurba (beautiful), and then, of course, Shyamji (Krishna), and Pyarelal and Banwari.
I cannot resist ending like I began, with a question. Is it strange that in a novel about music and musicians, the word ‘subterfuge’ occurs at four critical points? Santayana wrote in The Sense of Beauty that “even the furniture of fairyland bears a sad resemblance to that of earth”, and Chaudhuri can’t seem to get away from this thought: “But are not the great among us banal and mortal, even to themselves?” Another question.