Readers who have been praying fervently for an antidote to Chetan Bhagat novels will have ample reason to believe in the existence of God should they chance upon Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad. Chaudhuri’s latest offering gives us the student life scrubbed clean of all vulgar excesses—no campus, no middle-class hankering for IIT or MBA degrees, no girlfriends (half or whole), no unnecessary melodrama and twists and turns of plot, nothing that could be accused of being in poor taste. This is the quiet romance of a young man in love with his own thoughts, delivered in flawless English.
Odysseus Abroad is a slim, sparsely populated, thinly plotted novel. It follows the life of Ananda Sen, a twenty-two-year-old Bengali student living in a flat in London’s central district as he pursues a degree in English literature and nurses ambitions of becoming a modernist poet. Ananda is young, shy and disconcerted by the move from India to England, which abruptly robs him of his social class and simultaneously saddles him with the burden of race. The fact that he is a lettuce-eater and a wearer of jeans, the familiar markers of class and privilege in India, become invisible in London and instead he must contend with being regarded as simply an Asian in his host country—clubbed together with and indistinguishable from Punjabi restaurateurs, Sylheti waiters, Patel rap listeners and assorted Chinese students.
Afflicted with not sufficiently high–minded neighbours, cheap takeaways, and an acute sense of alienation triggered by the too pink and white complexions of his fellow students and college faculty, Ananda’s entire life in London seems to revolve around his weekly outing with his uncle Radhesh or Rangamama, who plays Ulysses to his Telemachus. His irascible uncle is the experienced immigrant, a self-proclaimed ‘black Englishman’ who has retired with a handsome pension, lives proudly in a rundown apartment in the tony neighbourhood of Hampstead and is a world conqueror in the eyes of the Sylheti kin he has left behind and still supports back in Shillong.
Nephew and uncle loiter about London, sparring lightly about family, arguing intermittently about modern poetics, humming Bangla songs, eyeing the occasional prostitute and looking for samosas, laddoos and a satisfactory Sylheti meal. That’s as much story as there is to the tale. Chaudhuri brings to its telling a delightful wit, self-deprecating charm, a keen sense of observation and what seems like an obsessive-compulsive fascination for street names, tube stations and bus routes. The London A-Z appears embedded in the novel. That apart, the writing is easy in its own skin and the sentences are lithe and well-sprung (though this reviewer is not qualified to say whether they are indeed Proustian, as claimed by the blurb on the back cover).
Bengali readers with a predilection for looking fondly in the mirror from time to time will find much to enjoy in this book—the familiar foibles of dress, accent and mannerisms are there, as are the ‘daaknaams’, the mandatory maccher jhol (albeit made with cod), the obligatory obeisance to Rabindranath Tagore, the fine ear for music and the earnest engagement with all things cerebral. The parallels with the Greek epic don’t go very deep, but add a nice, stylistic touch to the presentation of this slice-of-life offering.