Amit Chaudhuri

A Strange and Sublime Address

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A Strange and Sublime Address Summary

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In 1991, author Amit Chaudhuri published his first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, which went on to win that year’s Betty Trask Award for first novels in the traditional realist style. The short novel eschews plot, instead, focusing on recreating in minute detail the atmosphere of Calcutta as experienced by a young boy visiting his extended family over summer and winter holidays. Chaudhuri’s writing focuses on memorable, but also prosaic moments, lingering over the way his preteen protagonist takes in the rhythms of middle-class life in the Bengal region of India.

Sandeep is the only child of a family that lives in the Indian city of Bombay (now known as Mumbai). The small family makes its home on the twenty-third floor of a twenty-five-floor very modern apartment building. Every year, during his summer and winter vacations, his mother takes him to visit her brother’s family, who live in a small house in Calcutta. This novel chronicles two such visits a year and a half apart—one in the summer when Sandeep is ten and one in the winter when he has turned twelve.

The novel’s style is slow and methodical, and there is no particular plot driving the events. Instead, Chaudhuri provides a series of vignettes that paint the specific idleness that comes during middle school holidays, when nothing is expected of children who must make their own fun however they want, but who are also on the cusp of observing the adult world knowingly.

For Sandeep, Calcutta is a completely different world from Bombay. The house is a chaotic place—instead of a small nuclear family, there is a variety of relatives, including Sandeep’s cousins, Abhi and Babla. Part of this comes from the fact that Sandeep doesn’t speak Bengali—one of the things that slowly happens during these vacations is his slow acquisition of one of the languages of India that he doesn’t know. Another reason for the perception of loving disorder is the sense of people functioning on top of each other—for example, to fit into the living space, the kids all share one big bed.

Sandeep and his cousin spend their days doing not very much of anything. In the house, they watch his uncle get ready for his day at the office, learn the proper way to do the daily puja (worship) for the household deity, or eavesdrop on the conversations of his mother and aunt. They get used to the unpredictable shut-offs of electricity that plague the city’s power grid, which can often be ignored by the judicious use of afternoon naps. They lounge on the balcony, where they can watch passers-by, track the comings and goings of neighborhood pigeons, and see the way people in the street use the large nearby palm tree as a meeting place. When they leave the house, batting the insane heat, the kids shop in the marketplace, eat lunches of rice and fish from street vendors, and observe what they can of city life, with its rickshawallas and crowded hustle and bustle.

The main point of Chaudhuri’s languorous descriptions is to create a pervasive sense of calm nostalgia. Almost nothing of consequence happens, and whatever drama there might be beneath the surface of the household is never revealed or explored. Instead, what readers find is an empathetic dive into a child’s sense of the world—the way “the lifestyle and culture of a place create their impressions.” The main conflict, or plot development, if it can be called that, comes from the tiny differences that Sandeep registers when he visits Calcutta the second time—they are evidence of the fact that he is growing up.

For some critics, the lack of dramatic color and plot works in two ways. Not only does it build atmosphere and mood, but it also works to intentionally subvert the expectations that come with novels written about India. Rather than performing its differences or otherness for a non-Indian audience, Chaudhuri seeks to connect to a universal memory of lazy pre-adolescent afternoons, connecting the experiences shared by readers of all backgrounds.

The original version of A Strange and Sublime Address was published as a standalone part of a book that also contained nine unrelated short stories. The stories are quite different from the short novel and from each other. According to critics who praise the novel itself, the stories are disappointing, being fundamentally inadequate, and leaving readers expecting more than they provide.