The title of Amit Chaudhuri's latest novel, A New World, is somewhat misleading. The book seems to explore the difficulty in translating a traditional Indian upbringing to a modern Western life. However, A New World does not substantively explore Indian emigrant Jayojit Chatterjee's struggle to conquer life in his new world, the world of an American academic in the Midwest. Instead, the novel is a celebration of the old world Jayojit has left behind. A New World traces Jayojit's longings for the old world of his parents' home in Calcutta, longings that seem to surprise even Jayojit himself.
In A New World, the newly divorced Jayojit takes his son Bonny on a summer vacation at his parents' house in India. Jayojit intends to spend his vacation bonding with his family and working on his book, but he gets lost in the easy routine of being at home. For two months, Jayojit naps on his parents' couch, eats his mother's traditional cooking and ambles through the streets of Calcutta.
Chaudhuri focuses much of his novel on Jayojit's observations of the seemingly mundane details of life in Calcutta. Jayojit dutifully recounts the shifts in the dollar-rupee ratio and vividly describes the different saris worn by all the women he sees. He is as entranced by the noise of car horns on the street as he is by the religious rituals of his parents' neighbors. These snippets of life in India that Chaudhuri gives us through his account of Jayojit's wanderings are sometimes moving, sometimes simply mundane. But these observations in fact provide the key to Jayojit's character: his childlike fascination with the world of his parents and his reluctance to distance himself from that world. We are left with the sense, although Jayojit never admits it, that he would be happier if he had never left India.
Marriage is the recurring theme of the novel, weaving together Jayojit's thoughts about India and his interactions with his parents and son. Jayojit's marriage to Bonny's mother was arranged by their parents, but their subsequent divorce is an anomaly in their parents' society. Chaudhuri juxtaposes flashbacks of Jayojit's marriage to the interaction of Jayojit's parents. Neither couple seems to be in love; but Jayojit's parents, with their traditional mindset, would never think of changing their relationship.
As Jayojit reflects on his failed marriage and analyzes the deficiencies he sees in his parents' relationship, his thoughts seem to be leading him to the conclusion that a marriage will not work unless it is rooted in love. But surprisingly, Jayojit reaffirms his commitment to the idea of arranged marriages and says quite simply that he does not believe in love. This is another way in which Chaudhuri shows the extent to which Jayojit gravitates toward the old world, but these intermittent statements never add up to an understanding of why Jayojit feels the way he does.
Jayojit's statement about love is jarring, and highlights a central problem in the novel. Chaudhuri never develops Jayojit fully enough for his philosophy to ring true to his character. In fact, it is hard to understand Jayojit's inner life at all. Chaudhuri shows us that a part of Jayojit is stuck in India, but he never shows the side of Jayojit that inspired him to leave India in the first place. Jayojit occasionally comments on the extent to which he has grown accustomed to the conveniences he enjoys in America, but these comments do not give us insight into his life there.
Chaudhuri's depiction of Jayojit's marriage is equally sparse. The short scenes of Jayojit's memories of his wife are beautifully written, but are not effective in conveying the reasons for Jayojit's disenchanted feelings about romance, nor in validating his disillusionment with his life in America. Jayojit is left then as a stunted character; we know he is stuck between two worlds, but we have no idea how he got there or why he cannot get out.
Chaudhuri's portraits of the more minor characters in the novel, such as Jayojit's parents, are particularly enjoyable. Jayojit's neurotic mother and reticent father provide a strong backdrop to Jayojit's affinity for life in India. The Chatterjees talk about Jayojit's experiences "abroad" as though he lived in an imaginary land. Chaudhuri's subtle comparison between the mystical atmosphere that the Chatterjees attribute to America and the dreamlike way in which Jayojit wanders through India is compelling and beautiful-this is the strong point of Chaudhuri's novel. Through his sensitive descriptions of the daily trivialities of life, Chaudhuri manages to convey the wonderful, almost magical, quality that one sees only in the place one loves.
A NEW WORLD by Amit Chaudhuri Alfred Knopf 228 pp., $22
228 pp., $22
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