If I could tell you
This is the story of a father and his beloved little daughter – at least it starts that way with Oishi, whose name means ‘divine’ in Bengali and ‘delicious’ in Japanese, though the necessity for Japanese never becomes relevant to the story. Bhattacharya in his never overtly poetic prose describes the adorable babyness of the narrator’s little daughter, the translucent skin of her rotund stomach and how he and his wife drool over her through her growing days. We never know the name of the narrator but discover that he is Bengali, orphaned in a plane crash and brought up by his father’s friend in Mumbai. He wants to be a writer and follows the careers of Naipaul, Rushdie and the rest, hoping to break into the literary world in a wave of glory. In this sense, he is like most young people and since he has enough money, he chooses to work at that rather than anything paying, relying on the stock market to keep him supplied with funds.
Detail by detail the narrator takes us through his daughter’s school going, the tension of entrance interviews and all the things that anxious parents are aware of. That is when the book comes to life, the love of Oishi and her small world. The narrator covers the family things, a holiday with his wife, and their very Satyajit Ray-like meeting which led to love and marriage.
Bhattacharya’s language and the novel writer within the novel tale keep the interest going. A daughter is puzzled by what her father does, since in a class exercise on fatherly occupations the word ‘writer’ is never mentioned. ‘Writer’ is the undercurrent to the monologues with Oishi, the search for an agent, a meeting in London that leads to more scribbling and revising, descriptions of various cities, London, Calcutta, Mumbai, a quietly immersive poetic wandering which the reader is content to follow.
Gradually another strain comes into the novel within a novel, a mysterious ‘her’ encountered at the Tate Gallery rather stagily under the pre-Raphelite painting of Ophelia.
The relationship between this girl - who is Indian - and the writer in the making ultimately leads nowhere significant, except in and out of gay bars, but has the writer’s wife up in arms because he has never mentioned this other woman during their marriage. The ‘her’ comes into the novel as a way of being interesting another kind of thread since it cannot, the budding writer feels, be all about daughters. The presence of this new heroine in the narrative deconstructs the writer’s marriage in a way that does not quite hold together. Since his wife is reading what he is writing by her own demand, he introduces the non-encounter deliberately and she reacts to it as a woman scorned. But then, Naipaul’s readings to his wife were also counterproductive which speaks volumes about the relationships of writers and their wives to the writer within the writer.
The story is a one-character tale, a writer who cannot make the grade but who is determined to be someone in the literary world, misguided, loving where is concerned but ultimately selfish. If I could tell you is at its strongest when he is describing his relationship with his daughter, presumably reflecting Bhattacharya’s relationship with his own girl who happens to be called Oishi. In the end, it trails off with events that would raise a ‘why’ in the curious reader while the writer of the novel within novel also mentions that he realises that what he is writing is weak.
The question is, are writers weak on the whole and determined to persevere on their chosen path against all odds despite collateral damage on the way? The truth though, as the poem by Auden, which gives the book its title, suggests, can never really be revealed.