Boyd Tonkin

Return to the lost city

Amit Chaudhuri revisits the city of his youth, brimming with memories of his ‘unfathomable’ friend Ramu

During a press interview in Bombay about his latest book, the author-narrator of Friend of My Youth feels ‘a surge of bile’ against the novel. That imperialist bully of a genre has ‘squatted on the writer’s life’ and defines his ‘sense of worth or lack of it’. Our narrator, as it happens, is named ‘Amit Chaudhuri’. The circumstances of his return to the Indian city of his youth (but not his birth) match in many respects the author’s biographical data.

He’s talking, for a start, about The Immortals, the Bombay-set novel about musicians that Chaudhuri published in 2009. For all his rancour about the prestige of fiction, though, he insists that this latest work counts as a novel, not a memoir: ‘the author and the narrator are not one.’ At this point, readers unsettled by the hall of mirrors the French call ‘autofiction’ may be twitchily looking for the exit. They should stay: Chaudhuri is an exceptionally subtle writer, a sceptical seeker rather than a postmodern show-off. However you classify it, this journey through the traces of his past earns its literary sleight-of-hand.

In some ways, Friend of My Youth forms a pair with Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Chaudhuri’s overtly autobiographical record of his homecoming to West Bengal. The venue for his schooldays, Bombay (definitely not ‘Mumbai’, this city of memory) was the place where he grew up but ‘never belonged’, as he did to Calcutta. It remains an unfathomable friend — not close kin. In their quizzical semi-detachment, his explorations keep old haunts at a distance. He feels not so much aching nostalgia but rather — as in a church near his infant school on Malabar Hill — ‘the laxity of lapsed ownership’. The flow of years, that ‘ongoing passage to oblivion’, has deepened the absentee’s distance.

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