CHAUDHURI’S BOMBAY BLUES
A writer’s attempt to reconnect with an old friend and the city of their childhood
As the son of an executive at a large company, author Amit Chaudhuri enjoyed a gilded, if circumscribed, childhood in Bombay. Perhaps conscious that it was a temporary stop, a lounge to be waited in before real life could begin—a state analogous in some ways to childhood, which too can feel like an endless waiting— the novelist, critic and musician held the city at arm’s length. His childhood appears to have been a trudge through the familiar haute bourgeois route leading from Malabar Hill to the
Taj hotel, where he would browse in Nalanda.
The city itself, seething and cacophonous, barely impinged on this staid, decorous quiet. For Chaudhuri, the city he grew up in, where he attended school and some college, can be reduced to a handful of streets and one friend. “My mind tells me,” he writes, “Bombay is teeming with people you know, or have known. This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The people I was close to in school I’ve lost track of. Except Ramu.” When Friend of My Youth, a Benjaminesque meditation on Ramu and Bombay, opens, circa 2010, Chaudhuri has returned to the city for a reading. It’s a return that, for obscure reasons, he craves, each visit an opportunity to return to that sheltered childhood, that old friendship, a vestige of a mostly vanished past now that his parents have moved to Kolkata. This time, Ramu, a drug addict of long standing, is in rehab, and Chaudhuri, staying at a club in his old Malabar Hill neighbourhood, has time to kill.
And so, Ramu unavailable, the reader is led on a Pooterish meander. “I go into the toilet,” Chaudhuri writes, for instance, “and a wave of perfectly maintained features... engulfs me. I empty my bladder thoroughly.” The 26/11 attack on the Taj and Chaudhuri’s odd friendship with Ramu are supposed to give this enervated book some impetus. But Chaudhuri is too self-regarding to do much more than root inside his already ravaged navel.