THE IMMORTALS by Amit Chaudhuri. Knopf, 2009. 338 pages. $25.95
In quiet, measured tones that put a hushed calm over the cacophony that is India, Chaudhuri gifts the reader with a philosophical raga that lasts through the day into the peaceful evening. This novel resists irony and verbal gymnastics, rejoicing instead in the virtues of literary storytelling, in the process making spare, elegant prose seem quite novel. There is no hot jazz here—no smug, omnipotent outlook that condescendingly privileges the writer (and, by extension, his artistic siblings, the painter, the sculptor, and the musician) over common folk. Chaudhuri and his characters suggest, with a mix of sadness and celebration, that we live in an “age of democracy” that has seemingly done “away with the very line that separated artist and ordinary human being.”
The Immortals is a balanced meditation on the line that connects the material life of the ordinary human and the aesthetic life of the artistic human. At one end of the spectrum is Apurva Sengupta, a successful businessman; at the other end, his son, Nirmalya, who by novel’s end is singing ragas, studying philosophy, and wearing kurtas of a “fading materiality.” Father and son serve as dependable bookend characters, albeit characters with substantial nuance that allows for transformation. They respond to the world that is presented to them, and grow close and apart: “The Himalayan peak of his father’s career and probably Nirmalya’s own material life was strangely arid to come back to, like a place that could never be properly inhabited … As he began to shed the meanings he’d grown up with, he busily assigned new ones. He fell almost belligerently in love with an idea, with an immemorial sense of his country; and music was indispensable to it. The raga contained the land within it.”
Despite Nirmalya’s rejection of corporate life, the pere-et-fils relationship is not a conflicted one. There is little drama or surprise in how the elder Sengupta adjusts to his loss of title as Managing Director or how the younger Sengupta evolves toward a life of the mind. In most fiction, this could be a source of complaint, but here it is a pleasure to behold. Nirmalya is born with a heart murmur, and this potential threat of loss justifies the tenderness underlying this novel.
If Apurva is the apotheosis of a captain of industry, his wife Mallika is an exemplar of the committed non-professional artist. But unlike her romantic son, whose head seems often to be floating in the clouds, Mallika lives in the real world. She recognizes the need to balance her life as wife, mother, socialite, and musician. Chaudhuri gently and generously contrasts Mallika’s life with that of India’s legendary singing sisters Lata Mangeskar and Asha Bhonsle. “She knew she could have been famous; but she had opted for the life of a Managing Director’s wife … And then she’d hear Lata on the radio, and feel a stab of irritation. Lata and Asha, Lata and Asha—the sisters’ high-pitched voices almost indistinguishable from one another, everywhere. This wasn’t the India she’d grown up in; India had been transformed into an island, with only one radio station, and she had to listen to the same singers again and again … She knew, after all, that she’d made the right decision. Look at Lata in her white sari, unmarried, living like a hermit in Prabhu Kunj. Mallika Sengupta didn’t want to be a hermit: she still loved life.”
While on the surface Mallika’s glamorous life is a world apart from that of Shyamji Lal, the middle-class guru who gives her singing lessons, both lives give expression to the range of options between Apurva’s mercantile life at one end and Nirmalya’s metaphysical existence at the other. Shyamji is a gifted and flawed singer, the gift a blessing and a curse from his father, who had given all to his art. While Shyamji is reverential in honoring the memory and fame of his father Ram Lal, “he was at work all the time to distance himself, in effect, from Panditji’s legacy. The immense sacrifice Ram Lal had made for the arts! This is what he’d left them in the end, the chawl in King’s Cirlce, from which you could constantly hear the gurdwara loudspeaker.” Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps, Shyamji gives in to “life itself—life and its material reward. Its great material promise. He didn’t want to forgo it.”
To be sure, both guru and shishya make compromises and accommodations to achieve their own balancing acts. But Chaudhuri does not use words like compromises and accommodations as pejoratives; instead he suggests that lives have choices, and choices have consequences. In the middle of the novel, when Nirmalya asks Shyamji “Why don’t you sing fewer ghazals and sing more at classical concerts?” the teacher understands his student’s disappointment. But he patiently responds, “Let me establish myself so that I don’t have to think of money any more. Then I can devote myself completely to art. You can’t sing classical on an empty stomach.” Chaudhuri does not judge the choice; he acknowledges that Shyamji has a significant responsibility as the head of an extended family. But toward the end of The Immortals, as Shyamji lies dying, the consequence of this choice is made clear. The middle-aged music teacher had “a perfectly workable bluebrint,” but Nirmalya “looked at him beady-eyed, as if to say, with a seventeen-year-old’s moral simplicity and fierce dogmatic conviction: ‘That moment will never come. The moment to give yourself to your art is now.’”
This is as judgmental as Chaudhuri gets. He has written a lovely argument for the artist’s life without devolving into a didactic criticism of other ways of being in the world. Indeed, with The Immortals, he has seized the day. Perhaps the simplest guidance this reviewer can provide prospective readers is, “Carpe Diem.” Read this book and inspire the artist in you today. Right here. Right now. Without delay.n
With a tender heart for RCO’s son, Siddhartha, who is on the path to balancing the duality of life.