The Outsider

Rediscovering one of the original heroes of Indian English fiction

The Last Burden Upamanyu Chatterjee Penguin India, 1993 303 pages, Rs 399 {{name}}
01 June, 2010

IN UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE’S 1993 novel, The Last Burden, the 20-something Jamun recalls a Faustian moment: he had once offered to take care of his parents until their death if they made over all their money to him. His father, Shyamanand, dismisses the idea, so Jamun says gravely, “Even when I urgently need money, I shall not thumb yours. When you feverishly need me, I won’t be within reach.”

The memory of this attempted pact, which the family laughed off, is triggered by the realisation that Jamun and his elder brother Burfi don’t really need their father’s money; they’ve done reasonably well for themselves. What the family cannot abide is Shyamanand’s compulsive squirreling away of his measly savings. Burfi says, “Oof, such a dismal lower-middle-class exercise, a babyish sport—to mothball the interest on a Fixed Deposit—never wade into it—with that interest after months to archly open a Recurring Deposit, and with the interest of the Recurring Deposit to start some Term Deposit, or National Savings…”

Jamun reminds his brother that he is as fixated on money. He recalls Burfi’s wife Joyce once reprimanding Pista, their young son, about his habit of getting off the school bus at the wrong stop and detailing to him the horrors of being kidnapped. Burfi had intervened to point out to mother and son that the real horror would be the cash they’d have to fork out if the little bugger was abducted.

This exchange of memories within memories and half-affectionate accusations between the brothers takes place in the family car as they’re on the way to the hospital where their mother is recovering from a heart attack. Burfi makes himself a drink from some whisky hidden at the bottom of a picnic basket which contains food for the invalid Urmila. He ruminates, not without relish, on the hopelessness of the situation. “Baba’s first love, his money, will now be gobbled up by this hocus-pocus to extricate his first hate, his wife.” Jamun points out that he has dumped their mother’s food on the seat and not packed it back in the basket. Neither has he offered Jamun a drink.

Burfi rambles on, and his brother stays quiet, for this thing, money, that they have expended so much of their middle-class lives on, has always made him uneasy. He remembers other moments in their lives distorted by its demands: Burfi as a child, cadging money off his mother without his father’s knowledge; Burfi spinning fabulous yarns about the family’s riches for his friends. And all the while, Jamun’s growing detachedness. He had once been certain about the difference between his and Burfi’s attitudes towards money; now he is not even sure if the difference matters.

The immediate purpose of this extended scene is that Jamun will, as he has promised his father, talk to his tightfisted brother about sharing the costs of Urmila’s pacemaker. This purpose is achieved in an instant. “Obviously,” says Burfi, when Jamun brings up the subject. “But you pitch in first.”

IN SPIRIT AS WELL AS STYLE, this is The Last Burden in a nutshell, except that the very idea of nutshells would be anathema to Chatterjee’s project. Of all our contemporary English novelists, he is perhaps the most leisurely in his explorations, perhaps the one whose books are least amenable to satisfying summarisations despite not much in them by way of conventional plots. The Last Burden could be summed up in one simple sentence—Jamun’s mother is ill and he comes to visit for a while and then goes back to his job—and this would be an accurate description of the story and yet capture nothing of its richness. Chatterjee’s writing is not just leisurely, it holds up the ideal of leisureliness in fiction as an end in itself.

In The Last Burden Chatterjee has no authorial axe to grind despite the recognisable characters—the long-suffering wife, the cold patriarch, the stand-offish daughter-in-law, the servants who exploit the guilt of their employers, and the employers who can never reconcile themselves to their servants. He is not interested in pegging family stereotypes onto some caustic tale about middle-class sterility. The idea of the novel as a sociological instrument does not interest Upamanyu Chatterjee. Neither does the novel as a medium of history. Jamun’s description, to a colleague, of his parents’ past takes six words: “…Partition, refugees, trauma and all that…” and is never alluded to again.

Way to Go Upamanyu Chatterjee Hamish Hamilton, 2010 359 pages, Rs 499 {{name}}

What does interest Chatterjee is the tragicomic drama of the middle-class moment. He captures this with a density that is rare in Indian English fiction. We get to know Jamun, Burfi, Shyamanand, Urmila and the others less through second-hand reportage, more through first-hand observation. In the scene described above, the small details are not embellishment, they are the novel. Burfi dumps his sick mother’s food on the car seat; Jamun remembers Burfi’s hilarious stinginess when faced with the prospect of his son being kidnapped. These are not utilitarian details meant to lead to judgment or resolution. Jamun is not living out his Faustian fantasy—the fact of his once having considered it, and now his memory of it, are what’s significant.

For if the rules of family life mean you can say wild things to each other, those very rules also ensure that those wild things are often said as performance. Shyamanand and Urmila rail at each other with a bottomless bitterness. They are a tearful, Bengali version of the Lockhorns—their epic antagonism does not drive them to anything except fashioning new insults out of the old ones. Similarly, Jamun can marvel at his brother’s selfishness and his Shyamanand-like love of pelf and yet this does not make him feel superior to Burfi. The fact of their being brothers seems to override the differences in their natures.

Why should this be so? Why are family ties so uniquely messy and subjective? One answer that The Last Burden implicitly offers is: shared memory. The scene above is stitched together with memory. The fact that the family has a shared past becomes, in some mysterious way, a basis for sympathy even though what the sons badly want is to wrest free of the last burden—their parents. The common stock of memory prevents them from breaking out. They must stay together and stay content with being horrible to each other. Their familial love, when occasionally revealed, is usually indistinguishable from expressions of pity and guilt. None can be absolved so none should pretend to be, but sentimentality is best avoided—no situation is too terrible to crack a joke about or smoke a joint over.

Memory is a binding agent but it can also sometimes play the opposite trick. When Jamun is thinking back to how his brother would, without anyone knowing, write to their mother for money, a completely unrelated image comes to him. It is when he and his father are visiting Urmila in Bhubaneswar that they find out about Burfi’s cajoling letters. Jamun is watching his parents as his father is on the verge of making this discovery:

He isn’t accustomed to seeing his parents in any surroundings other than those of their shabby flat. Unmindful of the sun, he watches them in the shade of the gulmohar tree, down which pelt two squirrels and behind which is visible their neighbour’s kitchen window, from which eructs the trendiest Oriya film pop. All at once, everything seemed unprecedented—the lawn, the house, the mould around the tap in the boundary wall, the faces of the neighbours, the lingo on the roads—everything. They even cause the heavens and the sparrows to appear newfangled. The diverse, extraordinary components of the entire setting are telescoped in his parents looking like strangers. He senses, fuzzily but forcefully, that he doesn’t know them at all

This is an example of the double-edged nature of memory (it creates intimacy as well as strangeness) but also, again, of Chatterjee’s unhurried style. He makes generous space for the perceptual—for how things feel and look, and how appearances betoken not just documentary but also emotional value in fiction.

To look one needs to pause, to leave off what one has been saying in order to notice, and for all of this one needs time. And there is ample time in the novel’s pre-globalised world where it takes four days to book an air-ticket and where a cranky Ambassador sits in the driveway. There is also ample time in the heads of those not going anywhere, which is why Jamun’s apathy in the novel cannot be incidental. Since we experience much of the novel’s world through his eyes, it’s important that he himself, to fulfil the novel’s functions of remembering and mulling over, generally lack any ambition other than to remember and mull over.

THE LOVE OF THE PERCEPTUAL is balanced by the generalisations of philosophical insight, especially those regarding parents and children—fosterage, to use one of Chatterjee’s favourite words. To Jamun that precept of Genesis according to which a man shall leave his parents and cleave unto his wife and spawn a litter, which in turn will do the same thing, illustrates only life’s “hellish and dreadful designlessness.” And yet the Bible is often referred to, especially by Jamun’s lover Kasturi whom he has not married, possibly because he is loath to give in to this designlessness. There is Corinthians to further caution him: “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.”


One is reminded of this natural turning to the Bible when Burfi is recounting to Jamun how resistant their father is to the influence of his Christian wife, Joyce. The two boys went to a Jesuit school and were exhorted to speak English at home, but when Burfi married a Christian he was summarily reminded by their father that he ought to “revert our kids to our roots and all that jazz.” “Who has the time…for bloody roots,” says Burfi. Recalling how on other occasions their father tends to quote from Genesis, he adds, “…if he’s so bloody Hindu Mahasabha, then why does he know the Bible?”

This familiar bind experienced by the English-speaking, missionary-school-educated Indian translates, in Chatterjee’s fiction, into high irreverence. The subliminal effect of the education—in the broadest sense—that the brothers have received is that they cannot take anything seriously. “Existence,” says Jamun to himself, “can be rated as a gift only when the impotence lurking beneath all action is accepted.” In the case of the alienated character, this impotence may be the only existential conclusion possible but in the case of the writer, the achievement is to describe the impotence as graphically as possible.

Of course to some the language of The Last Burden may seem a little too extravagant. “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting,” says Jonathan Franzen, another masterly chronicler of family life. Chatterjee lets loose a flurry of interesting verbs. People constantly bellyache rather than complain and pule rather than whine. Exams are louring when they’re menacing and Jamun sees a woman pendulating rather than merely swaying. There are interesting adverbs too—pawkily, joshingly, edaciously—and fascinating adjectives—someone is ‘aguish’ with lust, a performance is ‘contumelious.’

But more than individual words, it is the idiom of the novel that is a very deliberate experiment in style. The effect of the formal, fuzzily Shakespearean language is to first throw off and then, through sheer consistency, gradually draw in the reader. At the beginning of the novel, Maharashtrian housewife Mrs Hegiste says, in supposedly bumbling Hindi: “Home is the hanky-panky of memory—honeyed, quilted—a fabulous once-upon-a-time lull.” Though one may not go as far as trying to work this back into bumbling Hindi to establish its untranslatability, this incredible sentence makes one resist not just Mrs Hegiste but a good number of the novel’s succeeding pages.

Eventually, though, the artifice becomes art. Jamun declaims to his girlfriend: “…how addictive desire is…Oh, but you snicker at mine and piety mauls it.” Elsewhere Chatterjee says of him: “Of course, he falters in honouring his vow; with him, as with many others, the allures and undertakings of the fleeting world bid fair to prevent duty…” Urmila, effusive on her way back from the hospital, asks, “In our time, in how many homes do three generations stay together without baring towards one another a beastly malignity…” Despite our knowing that this is not the way people speak, Chatterjee succeeds in showing us that to be convincing in fiction you do not need to be ‘authentic’. He gets us, as Shakespeare does, to hear the voices of his characters. And that, in the long run, is the only thing the person on the page needs.

THAT CHATTERJEE HIMSELF thinks of The Last Burden as a success is evidenced on page 206 of his new novel, Way to Go. Thinking back to the death of his mother in the previous novel, Jamun says, “Urmila’s death for example had been as exhausting as a tragic novel—guilt-laden, anguish-filled, redeemed in the main by the qualities of its sentiment and of its prose.”

This is a nice jack-in-the-box moment—the author peeking out of one novel to comment, in the guise of a narrator, on a previous. But the comment is not made just in the interests of self-congratulation or even narrative continuity. Way to Go is less a sequel—in the sense of something that takes a story forward—than a looking back. Because of its absorption in death, dying and disappearing, this is a novel of unremitting bleakness. And a measure of this bleakness comes, one senses, from Chatterjee’s longing for the felicities of The Last Burden and his inability, for some reason, to recreate them.

Despite the passage of 15 years, things have stagnated by the time we come to Way to Go; this stagnation is the novel’s obsession. Most events of any significance to it took place either in the previous novel or in the interim before this one begins—Urmila’s death, the stupendous rise in the monetary value of their family home, the degeneration of Burfi into a wife-beater, Jamun’s return to the unnamed city of his parents to look after his aged father, and the suicide of their high-strung tenant Dr Mukherjee. By the time the novel begins, all this is a given, already worked into the monotonous texture of their lives. Lobesh Monga, a rapacious builder with his eye on the house, has already befriended Shyamanand at some point in the past and now sits with him of an evening, “discussing with him the intricacies of municipal tax, building permissions, completion certificates and freehold possessions…” Their new cook, Budi Kadombini, is already an old habit with her “cabbage that tasted like burnt barley and meat gravy that resembled the outcome of a child’s indigestion.”

What does come as news into this stale scenario is Shyamanand’s disappearance one dawn when Jamun is keeping vigil by his bed, assuming him to have died of a heart attack. Jamun has selflessly devoted his middle years to caring for his father and yet can’t quite deal with his crabbiness and constipation (lovingly documented by Chatterjee). “I’m sorry Baba in general for revolting against you,” he says to his father in an imaginary farewell note. “I’m also sorry that you’re so revolting in general and that I take so much after you.”

The search for the 85-year old Shyamanand, however, despite visits to morgues and compositions of Missing Person advertisements, very quickly loses its urgency. His unexplained absence becomes, instead, just a shadow on Jamun’s heart, over all the other black shadows. The origin of Jamun’s suicidal instinct cannot, with psychiatric precision, be traced to any one event, but seems to be broadly connected with the theme of parents and children. He tells their neighbour, Mrs Naina Kapur, “For fifteen years, more or less since my mother died…I’ve thought of myself as already dead.” He longs for his father to return if only to be able to tell him that he actually does miss him. At other times, he feels that it’s the departure of his lover-cook, Kasibai, and his having to tend to his father that got it started. “…staying with his father alone thereafter became quieter, more tender and companionable and markedly more depressing. Jamun’s dreams of suicide dated from approximately that phase of his life.” Eventually, this sustained contemplation of parental ties makes life and the passage of time appear meaningless per se. Father and son play chess and mull over Dr Mukherjee, over

…how he had answered the vexed question of what to do when, upon turning fifty-five, one has nowhere to go but towards fifty-six, when one sleeps two fitful hours a night, night after night, and awakes hazy and with aching bones, with features like melting wax and inches about from tea to shave to toothbrush. That was time as fruition.

But it would seem that Jamun is alienated also because—in the world where Chatterjee situates him—there is no one much like him, except perhaps his brother who rarely answers the phone, asks Jamun to look in the toilet when told their father has been missing for 32 hours, and stuns Jamun with his violence against his wife. Then there was his friend, Dr Mukherjee, who spied on prostitutes at work (“Being Bengali, the chemist had been a man of revolutionary ideas”) and killed himself without warning or immediate cause. And finally there is Madhumati, Shyamanand’s Czech-Hindu tenant, whose company Jamun quite enjoys despite the lady’s corny spiritualism. But Madhumati is often away on one pilgrimage or another.

Everyone else in the novel is beyond touching him. He realises the futility of trying to pin down Monga, for “Monga was the man incapable of taking offence because he registered nothing of what was said to him.” This power of not listening is raised to an art form by Jamun’s colleague, Chagla, of whom he observes, “When others gabbled, one could either continue one’s monologue to oneself in a muted undertone or one could begin to nod with vigour and controlled impatience, steadily increasing one’s tempo as an encouragement to one’s interlocutor to finish quickly.” As for Parmeshwari, Jamun’s Hindi stenographer in his office, who belongs to the world of dowry harassment and maths tuitions, she suspects that everything Jamun says to her is either a pass or a ploy.

Alongside we have what Chatterjee calls the “lower orders,” for whom Jamun has always felt a perverse fascination without much accompanying empathy. He wonders if he should marry the deferential family cook, whose offerings are consistently nauseating, so as not to have to pay her; hangs about with Tekla, her pimp son; and does what he can for the loutish Vaman, an ex-cook’s son and also once the object of Jamun’s sexual interest. From time to time, Jamun contemplates their world: “…he had felt that imbeciles—at least some of them—were on to a good thing. They didn’t fret, for instance, over crap. They would never, unlike Jamun, stay up all night mesmerized by the rhythms of respiration or the beating of the human heart.”

Finally, there is the public sector world of banks, police stations and hospitals, whose labyrinthine follies and autistic officials Chatterjee has always lampooned with unparalleled mastery. In Way to Go, this sarkari-dom has joined forces with the 21st century private sector realm of illiterate but suave builders bearing black money in briefcases, men whom Chatterjee portrays with equal relish:

‘My party is absolutely most interested, Burfi-ji. Now I understand that with your Monday party you’d agreed to three point two—a very mature decision, so much more reasonable than your earlier demand of four point nine. Then why not to accept my party’s three point two five. You’re getting my point?’


THE ONLY PERSON left with whom Jamun could have shared a measure of secret understanding is his ex-lover Kasturi. But the lambency of their meetings in The Last Burden has turned to ashes in this novel. The married Kasturi is also the mother of Jamun’s daughter Mithi, whom he wishes would love him as much as he wishes he could have loved his own father. Kasturi, meanwhile, is nationally famous as the director of the TV soap Cheers Zindagi, “a title the very bilingual banality of which, Jamun felt, could seduce even a Himalayan ascetic into becoming a slug on a sofa…” Cheers Zindagi is based on Jamun’s life and Kasturi unapologetically works in real-life occurrences into the script such as Shyamanand’s disappearance. She and Jamun bypass sentimental conversations on his culpability for their unhappiness—her revenge, instead, is this shallow show where the stand-in for him is a character called Ashwamedha Ponytail.

Cheers Zindagi is perhaps Kasturi’s way of telling him that he is not unique. And yet the novel is nothing if not an account of Jamun’s unique failure to fit into Indian reality. When he notices of Monga that “Mentally he was distinctly less Occidentalized but at a conservative estimate, about forty times richer. He could comfortably keep twenty Jamuns as servants to teach the master etiquette,” he is voicing a version of what his brother noticed about their Bible-quoting father in the previous novel: the strangeness of being a Westernised Indian. If in 1993 this was already strange, in 2010 it is stranger, for now Western manners can be bought and that inbred Occidentalisation, once a measure of superiority, confidence and wit, has now been reduced to a form of loneliness.

Yet the very act of writing a novel from that lonely position and in marvellously assured English prose remains an act of defiance. Chatterjee is still mesmerised, and can mesmerise, by detail. The novel compels, page after page, by its sheer expressive energy. The downside of this descriptive intensity is that scenes tend to disintegrate into their component parts, and neither Jamun nor his creator seem to have the will to persist with any larger narrative goals. As Madhumati says, “A goal is achieved when its pointlessness is made clear.”

Way to Go walks the fine line between being about pointlessness and itself succumbing to the temptations of that void. And yet it must be read for the funny-sad commentary of the odd man out that plays so consistently in Jamun’s head. If Indian English fiction is itself, in literary terms, something of a waif, then Jamun is a perfect embodiment of this homelessness, even if homelessness is no longer what we seem to want to read about. Given their unfashionable apathy, their determined cleaving to failure, their inability to take anything seriously, their pointedly offensive jokes, their love of digressions, their undervalued fluency, it is likely that one of these days the Jamuns in our novels will go under and never be heard of again.