It’s very rare that I read and enjoy a book like Amit Chaudhuri’s Afternoon Raag. My mother often reminds me how I kept badgering both my parents to tell me stories. And I’d demand new ones – not finding solace in the familiarity of a story told over and over again, like some other children might. That love for stories has not left my disposition. So when I pick up a work of fiction, I am looking to read a story – a new, fantastic tale. I love getting into the lives of other characters, watch them unabashedly and know that they’ll always be there, hidden under the shiny cover of a paperback. So when a book like Afternoon Raag doesn’t tell a story, but more or less meanders over descriptive passages, back to back, with no end or beginning, one would think a reader like me would be disappointed. And one would be wrong.
Although it doesn’t have a story, the novel captures the reader’s interest through a medley of musings, strung together in an erratic manner by the author. I almost imagined myself having an afternoon chat with the narrator, when he reminisced about his life – his childhood in Bombay, and his brief stay at Oxford as a student. That the novel mostly focused on those two aspects of the narrator’s life was especially interesting to me, because I am from Bombay, and I’ve experienced the life of a student in a foreign country. Chaudhuri’s descriptions of both these are quite nicely done. He obviously has an eye for detail and when he uses a metaphor, which he does rarely, it is sharp, surprisingly smart, and tends to put a smile on your face. I loved his description of Western Bombay. Every little detail was lovingly written, showing that the author truly appreciates the city for what it is. I identified with the narrator’s observations of student life as they reminded me of my first years in the US.
Besides these two aspects, Afternoon Raag, as the name suggests, is about music – which again hit close to home for me. I studied classical Hindustani music as a child, and have clear memories of going to classes, learning raags, practicing with friends, taking exams. Chaudhuri’s detailed description of a harmonium gave me goose flesh, and although I hated my music teacher back then, made me yearn to go back to learning music. His paragraphs on how to tune of tanpura transported me back in time. I wonder if the writing at this point was so specific that someone who isn’t into classical Indian music will appreciate it, but it’s worth a shot.
This might not be genre I love to read, but somehow, it felt like a refreshing change. Chaudhuri is almost a poet, with a lyrical quality to his prose. His sentences are long, rambling, and yet lucid. For someone who doesn’t care for a story, but loves to read something that’s expertly written, this is a book to look out for.