Book of Wander

Long before college students on American or British campuses began signing up for courses in postcolonial literature, there were people from the colonies present in the imperial cities. In London Calling (2003), Sukhdev Sandhu writes that in 1900, during the “heyday of an empire often assumed to have been a foreign affair . . . black and Asian people were common sights in London: peddling religious tracts in White-chapel; walking, law books in hand, to the Inns of Court where they were students; operating on sick patients at teaching hospitals; collecting fares on the city’s omnibuses; performing as nigger minstrels at children’s parties or church halls; campaigning for Parliament (in 1892 Dadabhai Naoroji became the first Asian to be elected to the House of Commons); advocating decolonization from behind lecterns at the Reform Club and Westminster Town Hall; serving cheap coffee in East End cafés to their fellow countrymen who had just finished long shifts at dock warehouses.”

And, it must be added, they were writing.

They were writing books, pamphlets, advertisements, and letters. In fact, this was happening even earlier than the year 1900. Dean Mahomed is described as the first Indian author in English. He operated Mahomed’s Baths in Brighton and, in 1810, founded the first curry house in London. Mahomed’s gift to the English language was the word shampooing. In letters and memoirs written by people as diverse as the poet Rabindranath Tagore, or the Rani of Cooch Behar, Sunity Devee, or the young Sarojini Naidu, who would later be called the Nightingale of India, we see Indians in London as social observers.

Anxiety, sometimes mixed with ambition, and at other times chance social encounters that invite introspection, gives their writing the character of dispatches from far-flung stations of cultural travel. Consider, for instance, Mohandas Gandhi, who had arrived in London in 1888 as a teen to study law. Gandhi wrote about how Indian students pretended they were unmarried even though they had wives waiting for them back in India: “I too caught the contagion. I did not hesitate to pass myself off as a bachelor though I was married and the father of a son. But I was none the happier for being a dissembler. Only my reserve and my reticence saved me from going into deeper waters.”

The past isn’t another country. In Amit Chaudhuri’s latest novel, Odysseus Abroad, set in London in the 1980s, all the above themes find an echo: London’s restaurants with names like Beer and Curry; a guilty, somewhat ineffectual, curiosity about sex; social anxiety in relation to the white mainstream; the search for poetry; and, in the numerous disquisitions on literature, a lively engagement with Tagore.

At the heart of Odysseus Abroad is Ananda, who solemnly identifies himself as “a young man of letters.” Ananda has come to London from Calcutta to study literature at University College; he wants to publish his poems in Poetry Review. His maternal uncle, Rangamama, a lifelong bachelor, leads a reclusive, retired life in a bedsit in Belsize Park. The two men have developed a relationship of sorts; their exchanges, sometimes testy but often also playful, take the form of commentaries on everything from Tagore to treacle tarts.

The novel’s formal conceit is that it is in conversation with Homer and Joyce. Ananda, like Homer’s Telemachus, journeys in search of the older relative. Ananda’s mother, a recurrent visitor to London, is part Penelope, part Athena. The noisy neighbors living in the house where Ananda occupies a studio play the role of the suitors in Homer’s epic. And as in Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that Ananda read when he was eighteen, the story in Odysseus Abroad portrays a trip across town taken over the course of a single day. Ananda awakens in his Warren Street apartment around nine o’clock and practices a raga with a tanpura on his lap. There is a meeting with his literature tutor, Nestor Davidson, at midday, and another stop, a little while later, at the Diwan-i-Khas restaurant, where Ananda deposits his rent check with the owner, Mr. Walia, who is also his landlord. The tube carries Ananda closer to his uncle in Belsize Park. The two men meander on foot before riding the tube back toward Ananda’s Warren Street quarters. The trip ends with dinner in a Bengali restaurant.

More impressive than the formal conversation with the older texts is the way in which Odysseus Abroad conveys the specific impressions of a warm summer day in July 1985. The book alludes to Thatcher, “the indomitable grocer’s daughter,” Arthur Scargill and the miners’ strike, even the Live Aid concert, about which Ananda asks a fellow student: “Can an aesthetic objection go beyond what might seem morally right? That all those people cheering and dancing in Wembley Stadium, all of them thinking that by dancing to the music they were doing those starving children a good turn—that it made it quite wrong and macabre somehow, especially when you saw the faces of the children?”

London, ca. 1985.
London, ca. 1985. Phil Maxwell

But these are historical markers; the novel’s real pleasures lie in its poetry of the mundane. (“The epic begins in the ordinary,” comments Ananda.) “The inside of the flat was in shadow. When he pressed the switch, cushions sprang out of the dark.” “Radhesh made infrequent visits to Pinku Chaudhury’s bedsit to watch wildlife programmes, to admire, over an hour, the tiger’s stride and gathering pace, and to bemoan the gazelle’s spry but fatal ingenuousness.” Some passages recall to us a long tradition of energetic prose about London by writers from Sam Selvon to Salman Rushdie:

Thank goodness for immigrants! They—tired West Indian women steering prams before them, Caribbean workmen at building sites, wrestling with each other during their breaks like teetering boys, Paki gentlemen in worn black suits, the sudden swarms of dark-skinned children following in the wake of a schoolteacher, even the industrious, practical, seldom-smiling Chinese—they brought some sunshine to a place starved of light. The Gujarati and Pakistani shopkeepers kept the day from sputtering out: their shops open till after nine, well after the natives had retired. Sundays were a graveyard but for the Alis, Patels, Shahs, who (with Thatcher’s collusion) were always open for business.

The novel is part essay, part tale. Ananda is finding a footing in literature, and his meditations on poetry as well as fiction give Chaudhuri the opportunity to clear a space for criticism. For instance, here is Ananda reflecting on his tutor’s book: “Before he’d read the stories, it hadn’t occurred to Ananda that South Africa could be written of like this—without overt politics and hand-wringing, as a landscape of sunlight, comedy, provincial drabness, and small existential dramas. Was this lack of politics a limitation: was it what made Mr. Davidson a relatively minor player?” This deliberate, reflective tone raises questions about the novel in one’s hands. What kind of a work is Odysseus Abroad?

There is no plot here, and very little politics. Instead, a pattern is being sought: one set of perceptions laid down beside another, advancing an understanding of experience in a particular place and by particular people. Ananda tells himself that “he wanted no more of ‘stories.’” The occasion is Mr. Davidson’s recommendation that he read Jane Eyre. As far as Ananda is concerned, “modernist difficulty was his bread and butter.” Of course, this is true also of Chaudhuri. Things happen in this novel but not to advance a story; they serve as excuses for describing a character’s sense of the world.

And yet. While it need not be viewed as documentary or autobiography, what a novel like Odysseus Abroad offers is authenticity. When reading Chaudhuri on the food being served inside a Sylheti restaurant in London, or the language being spoken there, I’m aware of his intimacy with his subject. We do not encounter the errors found in, for example, Zadie Smith’s depiction of the curry house in her novel White Teeth, in which a Muslim character stretches credibility by claiming as his ancestor a legendary Hindu sepoy of the Indian Mutiny. A part of the authenticity of Odysseus Abroad is that Rangamama isn’t a celebrated figure from history; he is an ordinary person, cantankerous and opinionated. He is real, and therefore interesting.

During a recent visit to London, I visited the addresses mentioned in Chaudhuri’s novel—not to verify whether they existed, though I was pleased that they did, but to grasp better what exactly Chaudhuri had accomplished in his writing. At 24 Belsize Park, where, we learn, Rangamama lived in the basement, the color of the door was different but everything else matched the description given in the novel: the flight of steps leading up to the front door, the columns, pediments, and fluted whorls. The basement on the ground level, the door that led to the bedsit. Even the low wall separating the house from its neighbor.

I was struck by the precision of the writing. While I was standing there, Odysseus Abroad open to the right page in my hand, a man stepped out of number 23. He wanted to know if I was lost. I said I had come there to find a building that appeared in a novel, and the man’s first response was that it is easy in London to mistake one location for another. He allowed that I was at the right place when I pointed to the address in the book. I don’t wish to overstate the case, but this is what postcolonial literature has managed to accomplish in recent decades: Those who had previously appeared only as common sights on London’s streets have claimed a place on the page.

This man, who was white, remembered the quiet neighbor I was describing from the novel. He had known nothing about the man and his past. I tore a page from my notebook and wrote down the novel’s title for him. He said he had never seen his neighbor without a long scarf wrapped around his head, and had spoken to him only once, when the fire alarms had gone off in his house. They had lived next to each other for twenty years.

Amitava Kumar’s latest book is a collection of essays, Lunch with a Bigot, to be published in May by Duke University Press. He teaches at Vassar College.