Reading Amitabha Bagchi’s third novel, set in Baltimore, one cannot help being reminded of two American paintings. The first is Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925), and the other Charles Sheeler’s American Landscape (1930). Two very different works, no doubt, but between them they capture the march of an essentially dehumanised progress and the yearning for a fast disappearing world. Progress—a slightly old-fashioned word—manifests in this book in the form of plans to demolish and rebuild a Baltimore neighbourhood where the characters have their homes. A group of friendly neighbours, in their own small ways, hope, plan and dream of stopping the juggernaut in its tracks.
‘Place’ in this novel is contested and This Place is all about the efforts of a few people to hold on to their little corner of the city. So Miss Lucy, the old black lady who plays soulful tunes on her organ, refuses to leave her old house and move into a new one—“I didn’t birth two children here,” she says. For others, the sentiments may not be as strong, sometimes even bordering on indifference, but between them they do their bit.
The dominant mood, conveyed by the author’s control over narrative and language, is one of foreboding, of imminent loss.
Then there are those who will benefit from the city’s plan to rebuild and clean up, like Shabbir, the Pakistani businessman who rents out taxis and owns a number of houses in the area. There is also the figure of cabbie-turned-accountant Jeevan, from India, who helps Shabbir with his accounts and is torn between his zeal to protect Miss Lucy’s house and his obligation towards Shabbir, who helped him settle down. Living in the same block are Matthew and Kay, who are struggling through a difficult marriage, Henry, a World War II veteran and Sunita, who appears one day, leaving an unfaithful husband behind.
The characters are brilliantly portrayed with the deft brushstrokes of a master of the craft. Shabbir’s son Kamran, an aspiring journalist from New York, appears midway through the book. As his intimacy with Kay grows, the well-laid plans of the neighbours to protect “this place”—their homes—seems to be in danger of unravelling. Will the worse happen?
Yet this isn’t a nail-biting photofinish of the which-horse-wins kind, though horses and railway locomotives do have a role. The dominant mood, conveyed by the author’s extraordinary control over narration and language, is one of foreboding, of imminent loss, of the slow but sure passage of time that erases all memories. Transience and decay is best conveyed in the lyrical interludes that closes each chapter: “Sneakers hang from phone lines, their laces tied together, irretrievable....their shadows move slowly across the empty street. A light breeze makes them swing like pendulums. The time they mark passes...unobserved.”
These lyrical passages blend and amplify, unconsciously preparing us for the book’s touching climax. While there is a ping-pong of arguments surrounding history, flagging out the conflicts and ideological clashes of the story, what the reader will treasure perhaps is the purity of Bagchi’s prose married to a clear-eyed storytelling that begets moodiness and mystery without being hard-edged or cloying. And this is what brings Edward Hopper and his paintings to mind.
(Rajat Chaudhuri is the author of the novels Hotel Calcutta and Amber Dusk)