A Meditation on Many Things: Amit Chaudhuri's Friend of My Youth


In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, the narrator confuses the sense in which we use the terms ‘coming’ and ‘going’. Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, like Ghosh’s novel, also plays with these terms while questioning, contradicting, and shifting our understanding of another term: ‘home’. Friend of My Youth is a meditation on many things: the city of Bombay, life, death, language, friendship, and the novel.

The novel’s narrator-protagonist is a writer named Amit Chaudhuri, who returns (comes or goes?) to Bombay, the ‘home’ of his childhood, for a literary event, two years after the 2008 terrorist attacks shook the city. As he moves across the city, which he never really knew and which perhaps did not know him either, he remembers his childhood friend, the 'idiot' (used here with affection) Ramu. Ramu is, in fact, absent from the narrator's first revisit to Bombay and appears, in-person, only in two revisits described towards the end of the novel. 


The city of Bombay

The narrator, in the novel, confesses that he never really loved the city of his childhood. Yet, as he returns to it after many years, he finds himself in search of those very landmarks that made his childhood, landmarks that would help him orient himself. He visits the places most familiar to him, places that contributed towards making him the man he is. He refers to the city as Bombay and not as Mumbai (its new name since 1995) which is symptomatic of this attempt at a brush with the past. However, it is not a nostalgic reunion with the friend of his youth, the city of Bombay (and Ramu who is, in many ways, Bombay incarnate), that the narrator is aiming at. 

The novel is critical of things that make the Bombay of present-day. Bombay is described as the least changeless of cities, yet, the narrator tells us, there are a few things that are the same as ever. The narrator is acutely aware of the events of the 2008 terrorist attacks. During his revisit, he stays at the Taj Mahal Hotel, an important landmark of his childhood but also one of the cites of the four-day attacks. He remembers watching the CCTV footage of the attacks that was broadcasted on television news and says,

It's in the bad lighting of the CCTV video that the hotel echoes the mausoleum it's named afterin which tourists arc round the tombs encased in marble, shrouded in the perpetual semi-dark of mourning, where they can't take pictures. 

Bombay, the narrator tells us, was never good enough for him. Even now, he hesitates to write about it. He talks of the impossibility of recovering whatever it was that formed him and what he 'churlishly' disowned. This reminds one of another attempt at recovering the 'lost' Bombay. In "Imaginary Homelands," Salman Rushdie describes the experience of travelling to Bombay and encountering his childhood 'home', which appears drastically different from the monochromatic version in his mind inspired by a black-and-white picture. Rushdie feels an alienation from his 'home' in Bombay, a 'home' which, according to him, can only be 'reclaimed' in memory. While Rushdie makes a case for the possibility of recovery, Chaudhuri complicates it. 

Language, writing, and the novel

Perhaps the only way to recover the past of a city (somewhat imperfectly as memory itself is imperfect) and engage with its present is through language. Friend of My Youth makes some interesting observations on language and language-use. The narrator says that he hates the word 'refurbished' because it sounds like someone with a cold is trying to say 'furnished'. He talks about the phrase 'open sandwich' as being 'boldly counterintuitive'. He considers 'terrorist' (like 'anti-national') as a word that has lost meaning through repetition, such that it can refer to anyone now.

In relation to the city and its use of the English language, the narrator says,

In Bombay, you subtly shift your speech so you sound like the one speaking to you. You don't want to stand out.

He informs us that people believe in multitasking in Bombay and that 'multitasking' is a word used frequently in the city. Moreover, he observes that Bombay is a city where everyone performs a function, reluctantly; he announces that "Reluctance is fundamental," which is perhaps a play on the title of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (a book that I coincidentally bought with Chaudhuri's book, so imagine my surprise and delight at finding this reference). 

Regarding the word 'novel', the narrator says that the it has been used so variably over the years that no one is sure what it means anymore. The word does have unprecedented currency; the novel, writes Chaudhuri, is "no longer understood as a form, but as writing itself." Towards the end of the book, the narrator provides us with a more detailed description of the novel form. He says, 

What marks out a novel is this: the author and the narrator are not one. Even if, by coincidence, they share the same name [as in Friend of My Youth]. . . The narrator might be created by the author, but is a mystery to him.

Furthermore, the narrator refers to the 'business' of writing; the word 'business' having such a malleability in language. Writing is a business, especially in the present-day, and writers, as Chaudhuri writes, are "the pound of flesh that must be repaid in full." It must be noted that Chaudhuri is known for his experiments with the traditional novel form and realist narratives; he is praised for "pushing away at form, trying to make something new of the novel. . ." (from The Guardian).

A meditation on many things

Friend of My Youth is a good example of Chaudhuri's attempt at reworking the genre of the novel. It may be considered part fiction, part memoir (despite his warning against collating the narrator and the author), and part travelogue. What appealed to me, personally, about this short and well-written piece of work was its ability to meditate on many things, simultaneously: the city of Bombay and language (as discussed in detail above) but also life, death, and friendship.

Ramu, the narrator's eccentric friend who is seen slipping in and out of drug addiction, darkness, and the narrator's life, is an incarnation of Bombay itself. The narrator says that "Ramu is where Bombay lives" (an interesting linguistic inversion) and though Ramu may not be happy, he is always alive (energetic). Ramu is the only friend from school that the narrator has managed to remain in touch with. Regarding one's friends from school, the narrator says,

School friends are like relatives; you can't deny [that] they were part of your growing up, but they come to mean nothing to you.

About death, Chaudhuri writes that around the age of sixteen or seventeen, you begin to realize that your parents are human and that they will eventually die. It grows increasingly clear that you are alone and always have been. Finally, reflecting on life, he says that it is not everyone's cup of tea. Since there is little choice in the matter, one assumes that life must be an excellent thing and that it is one's own fault if it isn't. There is no option but to remain invested in life and irrespective of age, we simply pretend that we have decided to be exactly where we are. 

To conclude, told in first-person narration, moving between the past and the present, taking the reader on a short but important tour of Bombay that was and Mumbai that is, and meditating simultaneously on many things, Friend of My Youth is a gem-of-a-novel.
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Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri, published by Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin Random House India, 2017.

1 comment:

  1. I think I came across your blog few years back and it's heartening to see it grow and take up this form.
    Good work Nidhi!

    ReplyDelete

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