“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.

Light in form but not impact: Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

When God, disgusted with man,
Turned towards heaven,
And man, disgusted with God,
Turned towards Eve,
Things looked like falling apart.

But Crow Crow
Crow nailed them together,
Nailing heaven and earth together-

So man cried, but with God’s voice.
And God bled, but with man’s blood.

Then heaven and earth creaked at the joint
Which became gangrenous and stank-
A horror beyond redemption.

The agony did not diminish.

Man could not be man nor God God.

The agony

Grew.

Crow

Grinned

Crying: “This is my Creation,”

Flying the black flag of himself.

– Ted Hughes, “Crow Blacker than Ever”

I am carrying three griefs—three “conventional” griefs, if there is such a thing. I carry more, I am a walking inventory of grief, but the three “expected” griefs are those that I, and others, anticipate; I lost both of my parents and one of my closest friends within the span of two months last summer. And yet, no two griefs, no two losses are alike. Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter’s bravely unconventional novel about the impact of a woman’s sudden death on her husband and young sons, is a book that speaks to me—not as a bereaved child, my parents were in their eighties and ailing—but in the loss of my friend Ulla, who ended her life burdened by an unremittent depression and her own private, unresolved griefs.

She would have loved this book. It would not have saved her, but it might have granted her the comfort of wings, even for a moment.

crowTo appreciate the invention and spirit of Feathers, it is useful but not necessary, to have an acquaintance with Ted Hughes and his work Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. These poems, composed primarily in a span of time bookended by the suicides of his wife, Sylvia Plath, and his partner, Assia Wevill, give inspiration to the corvid character, who inserts himself into the lives of the grieving family. The father is a Hughes scholar, fumbling his way through the completion of a manuscript about the poet’s crow poems in the disorienting aftermath of his wife’s death. Guiding him and his young sons as they struggle to make sense of a world and a family missing such a central figure—partner and parent—is a crude, boisterous, grandiose incarnation of Crow in all his mythological glory. Real or imagined, it matters not. This surreal surrogate houseparent has arrived to ease, tease and prod the troubled family toward healing. He will stay for as long as he is required.

This short novel blurs the lines between prose, poetry and drama. It is narrated by three voices. There is Dad, who, aches for the loss of his friend and lover, and in his uncertainty about the nature of his new role in his fractured little family, questions the possible delusional nature of the presence of Crow. But he recognizes the essential value of his feathered wisdom:

There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow’s natural self and his civilised self, between the scavenger and the philosopher, the goddess of complete being and the black stain, between Crow and his birdness. It seems to me to the be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now. I could learn a lot from him.

The boys, unnamed and ageless, offer contrasting individual reactions, challenging one another as siblings will, while in unison they form a sort of mini Greek chorus. They fill in gaps, and respond to the loss of their mother with their own magical thinking, express deep concern for their father, and exhibit childish delight with the company of the crusty black bird in their midst:

Once upon a time there were two boys who purposefully misremembered things about their father. It made them feel better if they forgot things about their mother.

And Crow, who, in all his trickster enthusiasm, offers folktale wisdom, philosophical asides, and an abiding concern to preserve the spiritual safety of his charges as he ushers them through the initial stages of grief. At his best he is loud and irreverent:

Gormin’ ere worrying horrid. Hello elair, krip krap krip krap who’s that lazurusting beans of my cut-out? Let me buck flap snutch clat tapa one tapa two, motherless children in my trap, in my apse, in separate stocks for boiling, Enunciate it, rolling and turning it, sadget lips and burning it. Ooh pressure! Must rehearse, must cuss less. The nobility of nature, haha krah haha krap haha, better not.

(I do this, perform some unbound crow stuff, for him. I think he thinks he’s a little bit Stonehenge shamanic, hearing the bird spirit. Fine by me, whatever gets him through.)

From the description of this book alone, I was uncertain how well it would work, or more precisely, how accepting I would be of the premise. I have seen reviewers comment that it is clever, but not an accurate depiction of grief. What is an accurate depiction of grief? Loss is personal; grief is unique. Grief, in this instance, is personified as “that thing with feathers.” Mythology and fable meets the urban reality of contemporary life and becomes something other. And that, I would argue, is exactly what the shock of bereavement (whether it is sudden or foreseen) feels like. Grief is jagged, distorted, time-out-of-placeness.

What insures the success of this original approach to a subject so often steeped in unbearable sorrow and self-pity, is not the absence of these emotions—they are present in measure—but rather the careful sifting of language, tone, and spirit in the magical or surreal elements. Porter employs the poetic energy of Hughes’ poetry, ramping it up and making it his own. Yet, Crow’s presence is more than that. He is aware of his role and his origin in the tale:

“Thank you Crow.”

“All part of the service.”

“Really. Thank you, Crow.”

“You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.”

“He never called you a motherfucker.”

“Lucky me.”

Hughes is the father’s hero and a project to anchor his recovery. The poet’s own complicated reputation is not ignored, nor is the shadow of Sylvia Plath’s death, yet there is a self-deprecating humour to Dad’s academic and personal obsession, echoed by Crow’s playful interchanges and his sons’ observations. Without these elements the entire set up would seem contrived, forced. With them, the reading experience is both a heartbreak and a delight.

My friend Ulla lost her mother a few short years after healing a bitter and long estrangement. Every morning she took her coffee and cigarette out to stand by the struggling thorn tree planted in her honour. She would pour a little coffee on the ground where her mother’s ashes had been spread—a daily ritual of connection. The spirit of Crow would have delighted her, I am certain. I regret I cannot share this book with her now. She too has turned to ashes, tossed to the sand and waves of the Indian Ocean along her favourite stretch of the South African shoreline.

Now, if you have read Grief is the Thing with Feathers, you will know why, in the end, this is a book that, for me,  speaks to my loss of one of my dearest friends.