Friend of My Youth
“No one is sure any more what the novel is,” asserts Amit Chaudhuri in Friend of My Youth. When he tells people that he is a novelist, they sometimes ask, “Fiction or nonfiction?” This book mischievously adds to the confusion. It exists in that uncertain space between fiction and nonfiction, belonging to that increasingly popular category of writing called autofiction.
Like other recent examples, such as Rachel Cusk’s superb Transit and – also from India – Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, Chaudhuri’s novel is characterised by a narrator who is easily mistaken for the writer and who, often ironically, comments on the writing life in the context of a narrative otherwise concerned with the everyday. However, the book is distinct from autobiography because, as Chaudhuri puts it, “I’m not really interested in telling you about my life”, and the narrator remains “a mystery” to him.
So where do Chaudhuri’s interests lie, if not with himself? The novel is primarily interested in Bombay (never called Mumbai), where Chaudhuri grew up and to which the author has returned on a book tour to promote The Immortals, a previous novel also set in Bombay. Central to this interest is Chaudhuri’s oldest schoolfriend, a recovering drug addict and drifter named Ramu, who still lives there. Chaudhuri and Ramu like to nostalgically re-create the past of Bombay, a city so transformed by modernity that it exists only in their memories. The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, a remnant of old Bombay, is a particularly important reference point, but it is not unscarred by the contemporary. The Taj was the site of one of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed a total of 164 people in November 2008. The hotel haunts the novel, including as a simulacrum of its mausoleum namesake.
The novel is in part a meditation on what we are constantly losing to time: our parents, our friendships, our pasts, our worlds, our lives. However, the narrative maintains a light touch as Chaudhuri, sometimes alone, other times with Ramu, wanders through Bombay and their personal memories.
Compared by Hilary Mantel to Proust, Chaudhuri is known as a poet of the commonplace, but a Proustian aesthetic comes with its risks. At one point in the narrative, Chaudhuri calls his wife and tells her he is bored. Sometimes I was too. KN
Faber Fiction, 272pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "Amit Chaudhuri, Friend of My Youth ". Subscribe here.