“The streets were never really mine”: Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri

Although he claims to feel no nostalgia, the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri’s most recent novel, Friend of My Youth, carries a wistful melancholy that can really be understood in no other way. It comes through in his discomfort and his attempt to articulate a mixed affection for and estrangement from the city in which he grew up—Bombay. Chaudhuri has woven a close line between his own life and the experiences and qualities he grants his characters before, but here he blurs it completely, even playfully. His protagonist is an author named Amit Chaudhuri, who is in the city to promote his latest release, The Immortals. If this is, on some level, a metafictional mechanism to reflect on the question of the relationship between an author and his narrator, it is exercised in such a light-handed, controlled, mildly self-deprecating manner, that it never risks becoming distracting or annoying. Chaudhuri is a restrained, thoughtful writer, and Friend of My Youth offers so much more. Set against the urban gridwork and landmarks of South Mumbai, a city, at the time, still recovering from the horror of the 2008 terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel, it is a quietly insistent meditation on the ways we try to make sense of our own personal and geographic histories over time.

From the beginning, the narrator confesses to an ambivalence toward his former hometown:

I feel a sense of purposelessness—is it the ennui of the book tour or book-related visit? Not entirely. No, it pertains to Bombay, to being returned to a city where one performed a function, reluctantly. Reluctance is fundamental. You don’t plunge into growing up; it happens in spite of you. Then, one day, it’s done: you’re ‘grown up’. You go away. Back now in the city of my growing up, there’s nothing more that can happen to me. I embrace a false busyness. I suppose I’m living life. Without necessarily meaning to. It doesn’t occur to me that the visit is part of my life. I believe I’ll resume life after it’s done.

But, although he has been back to the city many times in the decades since his family had moved back to their native Calcutta, and he himself had gone on to study and teach in the UK, there has always been one grounding constant—a friend from his school days, Ramu. On this occasion he learns that Ramu, whose life has been defined by drug addiction, is in intensive rehab and cannot be visited. Their friendship is strange, an attraction of opposites, one who would go on to achieve a degree of literary success and middle-class normalcy, the other troubled and stalled, unable to completely shake his demons, now in his fifties, still living in his family home with his sister. Theirs is an often awkward camaraderie, bound to a small geographical space in a city that has, over time, expanded exponentially beyond the confines of what has become known as South Mumbai. When Ramu is not there, Amit discovers that without this particular conduit to his past, whose eyes he had relied on, he is forced to encounter Bombay anew, even alone.

As the narrator traces his way through the city, a reflective uncertainty, a searching for words, underlines his thoughts. The prominent, well-known landmarks are laden with the hallmarks of his own idiosyncratic life history, from the restless eagerness to leave in adolescence and youth, to the regular returning, each opening shades of a city he knows he never really knew. How much, he wonders, was his inability to really see the city he grew up in rooted in a conviction that his origins as a Bengali prevented him and his family from ever full belonging, and encouraged his belief that his destiny lay elsewhere. If you feel, at heart, that you do not own a city, how can you truly see it?

So he is trying to make sense of his relationship to the city—and through that, to the shifting currents of memory and nostalgia that continue to haunt us all as we grow older. Ramu’s absence looms large. Who we believe we are is always, to some extent, measured and understood against the trajectories, real or imagined, of others.

I know I’ll see Ramu again. But it’s as if I won’t see him again. I’m thrown off-balance—but also surprised. I didn’t know I’d react like this. Ramu isn’t the only close friend I have. But it’s as if my sojourn in Bombay depends on him. ‘Depends’ is the wrong word: I haven’t come here because of him, to delve into his whereabouts. But the surprise I’ve mentioned is related to my astonishment at being here. ‘Astonishment’ denotes how you might start seeing things you hadn’t noticed earlier, but it could also mean becoming aware that you won’t see them again.  As I turn into Pherozeshah Mehta Road and then left into the long stretch of DN Road, I know I won’t see Bombay again. That is, I will see Bombay again, but not the Bombay I’m looking at now.

Toward the end of the book, two subsequent visits do bring Ramu back into Amit’s life, neither resolving nor further alienating his connection to the city. There is something oddly comforting in their unlikely location-specific friendship, one that speaks to the ineffable qualities of our own connections to the people and places that we leave, but can’t quite leave behind. This is a novel as much about loss and aging, as it is about recognizing that there are connections that perhaps we never really had, no matter how much time we spent with them.

I took this book to India with me, planning to read it in advance of my own recent visit to Bombay but, as it happened I did not open it until about a month after my return. Although familiarity with the city is by no means necessary, even a brief encounter will add an extra dimension because this is a novel so clearly linked to space. For those who know the city well, it will be potentially an even richer experience. I spent three days in the Fort area of South Bombay, visiting a few of the common tourist sites like Gateway of India and Marine Drive and attending several events at the Kala Ghoda Festival literary venue, the fabulous garden of the David Sassoon Library. I used Horniman Circle and Flora Fountain as guideposts and got lost in Churchgate, not realizing I was entering a train station (in my defense, the entry said “underpass” and I assumed I would avoid crossing one of the city’s notoriously congested roadways). All of these features or locations appear and it was fun to be able to immediately bring them to my imagination—mind you, without the emotional gravity with which Chaudhuri so effectively paints them.

Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and New York Review of Books in North America.

Three days in Mumbai: What a small taste of a small corner of a huge city can tell you (about yourself)

As I write this I am five days into my second visit to India in as many years. This time my stay is longer, my scope wider, my engagement deeper. It is as much about meeting, building and nurturing friendships and connections—long standing and new—as it is about “seeing a place.” One does not travel half the globe to inhabit, however briefly, a world that is so very different in texture, tone and sensations from one’s own without being open to experience. But it is a complicated negotiation at times.

As an outsider, and more specifically as a westerner from a city of a little over a million, I respond so viscerally to the intensity of the Indian metropolis. And yet I am ever conscious of my vantage point, skewed and out of context, informed by the romantic images of my youth and early adulthood—elegant colonial set-pieces, followed by the wave of popular biographies of Ghandi and Mother Theresa in the 80s. I do not wish to appear the starry-eyed searcher or the foreign curiosity seeker, for in truth I am neither. The attraction is real and formless. I feel it in my bones, but am hesitant to grant it words.

I am aware that I experience India from a point of both ignorance and privilege and to formulate a response to what I see and feel leaves me as anxious as a non-poet wanting to write about poetry but refusing to for fear of reading it “wrong”. As if there is only one way to read anything. There is no such thing as pure, unmitigated and unbiased experience.

And so to my present location: Bombay or Mumbai. With a population of over eighteen million souls, Mumbai is the largest city I have ever been in. It is arguably one of the very biggest on the planet. I have to confess I found it immediately oppressive and claustrophobic. From the moment you leave the airport, humanity crushes in on you. Densely packed slums crowd the space alongside the roadway, for kilometre after kilometre, giving way at times for marble and granite dealers, before returning again. Gradually the apparent quality of the hovels improves, but it is an urbanized poverty on a scale that is difficult to process. I knew it was there. Maybe I didn’t expect to see it so explicitly.

The ride into the city was endless. A thick yellow haze hung in the air and I began to regret my decision to hire a non-A/C cab. In the rear view mirror I could see the eyes of the driver watering. With the smog and exhaust fumes blowing in through the open windows, I wondered what it would be like to spend each day moving back and forth through the impatient traffic and gridlock hour after hour.

For the traveller who arrives by air, a city makes her first impressions in the journey in from the airport. Mumbai’s welcome is pungent and emotionally disarming. From the vibrant interior of an ancient yellow and black cab, I watch the corrugated metal landscape pass as we slowly descended into the city. I take no pictures. It would not feel right.

Once I am finally settled in my hotel in the Fort area of south Mumbai, I grab my backpack and head out. The streets of the city are noisy, fast and congested. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that they often appear empty in photographs—it’s an illusion!) They seem to change flavour and character from block to block. Crossing the street, even daring to walk along the edges where the uneven pathways are blocked, or nonexistent, is an exercise in blind faith. A motorcycle is likely to roar up behind you, racing against the flow of traffic, blaring its horn to make you disappear. A legless older woman working a rusted handcart down the side of the road is my new hero. I’m at odds to know what I think of this place. I feel a little pressed under the weight of the space.

As ever, I take note of the street dogs. Here they’re a rather sorry assortment of creatures, weary and worn. Perhaps they don’t stand a chance against the cats that appear to quite handily own this part of town.

My immediate destination lies in the heart of the Kala Ghoda arts district. The area is crowded. Following my friend google  in search of the library where the literary portion of the annual arts festival is to be held, leads me through a bag search, metal detector and frisking, and into a large square crowded with young people  A variety of  sometimes quite tacky horse-themed artworks are displayed and the selfie generation is quite enamoured of them all. I am a little perplexed. I later learn that this is a new addition to the festivities, one that has drawn large numbers of people, mostly young, in from the suburbs, not for the arts so much as the party atmosphere. This type of attraction and congestion alters the tenor of the area. Of course, I’m here for the festival too—a little unexpected serendipity—but fortunately the literary programming is taking place beyond this makeshift corral, across the road in a garden oasis behind the David Sassoon Library. There one is magically removed from the noisy traffic and crowds on the street outside.

Now on my final day in the city, at least one tiny corner of Mumbai is less strange. The streets seem shorter, less confusing. The architecture is beautiful. This part of the city wears its age with grace. I have been to the Gateway of India, the obligatory tourist gesture, and today I saw the sea from the other side, looking out from Marine Drive. A completely different world unfolds there. Large, expensive vehicles line the shady streets, students pour out of colleges and universities, and in the distance, across the waters, the towers of the city’s centre appear ghostly in the midday heat. But it’s hot. I don’t stay long.

So, after my first, brief encounter with Mumbai, three things remain: the gift of being a stranger in a place where, despite disorientation and an inability to comfortably communicate, a little semblance of familiarity begins to emerge; the necessary joy that literary community affords including the precious opportunity to meet, in person, supportive and inspiring writers previously known only online; and finally, the chance to experience a hectic, sometimes seemingly harsh, city at rest. Late last night, after a wonderful, long visit with a friend, I made my way back to my hotel through the quiet virtually empty streets. Ranjit accompanied me part of the way, down byways I likely would not have attempted on my own, until he was certain I knew where I was, and I finished the walk alone. Here and there men spoke quietly, or bid one another good night. On sidewalks, those without homes were already fast asleep, and lonely yellow and black cabs crawled by, hopeful for a late night fare.

Funny that such a huge city could test me by day, and win me over at night.