Odysseus with Telemachus in tow lost on his wanderings and exiled very far from home. Stephen Daedalus roaming the streets of Dublin with the same epic thoughts in his head but brought down to everyday reality. Amit Chaudhuri’s latest work Odysseus Abroad cross references both texts albeit with a great deal of reading between the lines. There are overt references to Homer and the fact that the Greeks spent a lot of time eating burnt pork outside Troy, transfigured to tandoori for the Bengali version of the epic.
Not that it matters if the casual reader fails to get the references. On the surface the book is the story of a student, Ananda Sen and a day in his life in London. 24 hours crisscrossed with so many memories and happenings in his life and that of his family that the fact that it spans just one day can get overlooked.
Ananda Sen, however is not Odysseus. That role is reserved for Ananda’s uncle, a man exiled from his family home in Sylhet and reduced to being a finance provider for his nephew since pound flow is restricted by Indian forest exchange rules. Ananda makes an uncomfortable Telemachus even though his uncle makes a brave attempt at being paternal to the extent of treating him to tea and an unnecessarily expensive muffin. Rangamama is a colourful man who hates England as much as his nephew does and that is about the only thing they have in common, except for a love of music. Rangamama is into Tagore—limp Tagore compositions, according to Ananda, while Ananda is an Indian classical musician inspired by his mother’s singing skills.
Rangamama is also, unlike Odysseus, a virgin, who has clung relentlessly to one single bedsit ever since he took up exile and who prides himself on the fact that he does not look Indian, but could be mistaken for Jamaican. His closest friend is, in fact, a Pakistani, though he sometimes drools over nubile young English sweepers at his office. Flatulence, food and sloppy dressing constitute his life.
Similarly, the few English characters that Ananda deigns to mention are his tutors, the beautiful Hilary whom he fantasises over reluctantly while realising that he has very little in common with her, the old Jewish professor from South Africa, Nestor Davidson, with whom he exchanges poetry, while glancing through his literature syllabus and the girl downstairs who disturbs him with music at 5.30am when she returns from her night’s work at the bar. Like his uncle, Ananda is loveless except for flights into Chaucer and Shakespearean sonnets and is a devoted masturbator which goes with his fantasies.
Behind the two is the London of the 80’s peppered with Maggie Thatcher’s rule. A London where skinheads are just beginning to go out of vogue—though one of them tosses an apple core at Rangamama and gets into a punch up. The byways and the tube stations are likely to raise a flicker of nostalgia in old London hands.
Music and London with memories of home are common themes in Chaudhuri’s work—they are in fact the memories he grew up with, reproduced in loving detail here. Small details are in fact the book’s greatest strength, starting with the skillet on the cover and going on to the orange dress with the bright yellow circles that forms his first year tutor’s fauvist attire, or the trickle of frozen peas outside his door from his careless housemate, or his uncle’s grey track shoes which Rangamama prides himself on. All served with touches of atmospheric prose.
Anjana Basu is a writer
and advertising consultant
based in Calcutta. She has
4 novels, a book of short
stories and two anthologies
of poetry to her credit.