Tag Archives: Rajorshi Chakraborti

The Absurd as Political: Lost Men

Akhil Katyal

losmencover

Rajorshi Chakraborti
Hachette India, 2013
264 pp
Paperback : Fiction

In the last two decades, the Indian middle class has been forced into so many euphoric ‘growth’ stories, it seems to have already outgrown this euphoria and landed into utter despair. Montek Singh Alhuwalia, ‘growth’ mafioso and Planning Commission deputy chairman – who I always imagine as being at home in Jay Gatsby’s parties, drinking himself into the Great Depression – said that ‘India’s middle class is massive but they have one thing in common – to move ahead, up, onward. Why look at the past?’ Hurtling ahead at such great speed must be painful, especially when it comes with a dictum to disremember one’s own past. Rajorshi Chakraborti’s Lost Men catches the selfish, self-entitled middle-class protagonists in their impossible projects of forgetting their past, who having ‘grown’ are now exhausted, bedeviled and – the title says it – lost.

The first time you see the contents page of Rajorshi Chakraborti’s book, it looks like a collection of short-stories. It is actually a medley of pieces whose common anchor might be the short-story but each of them sail in different directions, stretching the genre into different shapes, making it do at times scathing work. Of the ten pieces, at least two are like flash-fiction (a form given to cheap surprise), four are short short-stories (given to revelations as you go along), three are long short-stories (given to drawing out pain and paranoia) and the last one is a breathtaking novella ‘Down to Experience’ that deserved a slim book all of its own. Although Chakraborti’s art shines more as his forms lengthen, the short-story genre is perfect for his chosen object – with its surprise, its revelations and its pain – to show how being caught between huge self-entitlement and an equally huge self-pity, as the Indian middle class is, his protagonists plot the absurdity of their own lives. But ‘plot’ only as a depressive can do, helplessly, incorrigibly and, yet always, actively. In the story ‘The Last Time I Tried to Leave Home…’ the protagonist has to catch a flight from Calcutta to Frankfurt, leaving his birthplace ‘to start a new life’ in Europe, and yet as time passes, and it passes inexorably, so noticeably in this story, he (fully aware, one suspects) keeps regressing instead of reaching near the airport. The past – his former home, his former love, his now-almost-former city – keeps breaking in, interrupting his departure. The reader is painfully aware of the passage of time and how out of step with it this strange guy is.

The Indian middle class is a schizophrenic people, always out of step with itself. On the one hand they are feted by (what Tariq Ali calls) India’s ‘airhead’ national media as a miracle, as the vehicle and riders of India’s ‘growth story’ (Barkha Dutt used to say ‘meteoric growth story’), as the class which will push Asia into the 21st century (moving right behind their Chinese brethren) and led by the fantastical apparition of its diasporas in the U.S. and the U.K. (never in the Middle East and Africa). Ahead of the 2013 Union Budget, Pronnoy Roy (Barkha Dutt Sr.) was talking only about this haloed class when he said that ‘2-3 years ago, India was the focus of the world. The world looked at India, those great hopes, great faith. We were growing at 8%… [t]hat gave great hope to everybody… It really looked very bright.’ On the other hand, far from this (spurious) self-confidence, this same middle class is the perpetually wronged party, always anxious and shrill. Despite being what Amartya Sen calls ‘the relatively poor of the rich’ who have hijacked national level welfare debates where it projects itself as the ‘aam-aadmi’ (‘the elite’ never calls itself ‘the elite’), getting its diesel subsidies, negligible import duties on gold and diamonds, State-subsidized higher education, an urban planning push that favours the car-owners and gated housing, its OCI and NRI cards, it yet manages to sell itself as the aggrieved one when any genuine talk of universal food, pension or health cover is breathed, when the actual poor stand to gain. In the age of Dalit assertion, it rues reservations, becoming ‘meritocratic’ when it has to share power. In the age of armed tribal upsurge, it advocates Gandhian non-violence as the only mode of protest. It is self-righteous and anxious, powerful and pitiful at the same time. When you finish reading Chakraborti’s book, you will say the same for his characters.

Rajorshi profile pic

Rajorshi Chakraborti

In the titular story ‘Lost Men’, the protagonist returning to Calcutta from London, grieving his wife’s death, meets his co-passenger Santosh at the Muscat airport who would keep on scratching his balls, and who looked to him like he was from ‘Dhakuria Lane on the bank adjacent to the railway side slums’ in Calcutta, who, as he was not performing the right amount of ‘genteel’ as expected of him, makes the protagonist reflect that ‘perhaps flights were the new buses…this one seemed full of characters you would only ever see on buses before, especially rural ones’. Chakraborti manages to show the smug that rots at the heart of this character inoculated from the rest of his world – grief or no grief – an Indian who is an English professor in Britain, and on whom, only as the story moves, the reality of the other Indian diaspora, the unskilled and the semi-skilled labour in the Gulf, slowly dawns, initiating a crisis of guilt and class-privilege till he forgets it as soon he steps out of the Dum Dum airport. But the thing is this: no forgetting is finally possible in Chakraborti’s stories, all past guilt, privilege and loss comes to bear irrevocably on the present of his actors. In ‘Lost Men’ the protagonist ends up meeting a series of other ‘lost men’ – first Santosh, then a manic American sports-coach who threatens a mass shooting, then a Thai waiter in love with an Italian girl, and finally, the actors Vinod Mehra, Kader Khan and Pran but only as a happy memory (happiness is always a memory in Chakraborti) of a film watched years back with his wife. These episodes are strung together horizontally, there is no developing realization, no epiphany, no so-this-is-what-it-was-all-about. These episodes do not speak to each other. Their connection is absurd, but precisely in its root sense, Latin absurdus, formed from ab and surdus, means deaf, stupid, always out of step. Like the class to which Chakraborti’s characters belong.

I earlier told you the story of the Indian middle-class only to make apparent the historical foundations of the idea of the absurd in literature. The absurd – in which Chakraborti’s pen sometimes dithers, sometimes excels – has never simply been about the characters finding no inherent purpose in life, simply passing from one meaningless action to another, as if operating ahistorically. The absurd character is not outside history, its strangeness, its resistance to meaning, is a commentary on precisely those historical formations whose pulls have become too difficult to bear, whose common sense now only undermines its adherents. The absurd is not the lack of meaning, it is its artificial delimitation. The absurd does not exist in some opposition to history, it is in fact its obverse, its cruel face. For Franz Kafka (who – I pay this compliment with some hesitation – Chakraborti sometimes touches, especially in the long forms) this face was the bureaucratic opaqueness of a tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire, for Eugene Ionesco it was the ascendancy of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania of the 30s, for Samuel Beckett, it was, as his Nobel prize citation said, ‘the destitution of modern man’ but a destitution possible only in the Europe that had seen two savage wars and the many ends of its brutal territorial colonialism.

For Rajorshi Chakraborti, as his characters travel, in his own words, ‘between mystery and mystery’, the face of their absurdity – its shape and its setting – is precisely this post-liberalization moment in the Indian polity where the middle-class actors (resident, diasporic, media res) have to be sufficiently strident, sufficiently forward looking (as Alhuwalia prescribes) and confidently indifferent to any collective politics, aside from an easy cocktail of social conservatism and a blunt romance with GDP ‘growth’. Chakraborti’s characters – in the stories, not the novella – reflect this common-sense in their own absurd glass: the characters are lost, their confidence is laced with anxiety, their energy is always on the edge of paranoia, they act despite themselves, without clarity, always catching up, getting caught in the spirals of events they thought were of their own making, and finally, as to their alleged forward-lookingness, much like the last line of The Great Gatsby, they ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ Just when you imagine that the Indian middle class is in control of its future – economic, affective or social – that its boats are aligned with the current, you read Chakraborti’s book and realize that this figure is inordinately exhausted, that the future it keeps on going on about is only a caustic mirage. This is the political revelation at the heart of the literary style of the absurd. Chakraborti’s Lost Men marks the moment when the Indian middle class, strictly speaking, lost the plot.

 

AkhilAkhil Katyal is a writer based in Delhi where he teaches English literature at Delhi University. His poems and articles have been published in The Houston Literary Review, UCity Review, The Litterateur, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Times of India, Himal Magazine, Open Democracy, Pratilipi, Millennium Post among others. His poetry collection is forthcoming with Westland, Delhi. He can be contacted at akhilkatyal@gmail.com.

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The Last Time I Tried to Leave Home…

Rajorshi Chakraborti

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

© Divya Adusumilli 2013

… I asked to be dropped off at one of the bus stops at which the city-to-airport coach picked people up; it would save everyone the hassle of making their way back from the airport during what would be the evening rush hour. I have plenty of time, I argued, six whole hours, so the speed of the coach would be fine for me, and this way everyone else gets the afternoon to themselves. When they realised I was serious, my folks agreed quite easily to my proposal (and right they were to), because it was on the whole a saving of at least three hours for them, and several more if they were thinking they’d have to wait, for the sake of form, until my flight departed.

Six hours, I had six whole hours, and even factoring in the usual hold-ups due to traffic, the coach couldn’t take longer than two. So I decided not to take the one that was due to arrive in five minutes, but to give myself an extra hour to wander around this bit of town. After all, this was my home city and I didn’t know when I’d be back, so I was going to seize my final chance to look around and soak it in. The weight of my suitcase was just about manageable, and there was a bus to the airport every half-hour.

Within a couple of minutes of walking, I knew which way I should head. It was too inviting to ignore – our first family home was about ten minutes away (ten minutes with me pulling my suitcase). And today of all days, when I was leaving my birthplace to start a new life, it seemed right that I should return to say goodbye to the house where it all began, where I’d spent the first seven, extremely happy years of my life.

Since we’d moved, we didn’t pass through this neighbourhood much, so I was surprised to find that the house, while still standing, looked in terrible shape, as though it hadn’t been painted in over a decade and was now in a state of terminal neglect – suggesting that the landlord had finally got rid all of his tenants and the building was going to be pulled down very soon.

As indeed many other houses in the area already had been: one in three of the present buildings looked like they had come up in the last ten years, nondescript blocks of flats four or five storeys high that had replaced the old family homes on generous grounds which once dominated the street. And I didn’t really (even) have the leisure to stand and contemplate the decline of the house I’d once been so sad to leave – with its small balcony outside the front door on which I remembered numerous welcomes and goodbyes, and my ayah and me watching the life of the street go by round four o’ clock each afternoon before ourselves setting off for my daily walk and play – because directly opposite it, demanding my attention and awe, and expecting me and my suitcase to either keep moving or get out of the way of a constant two-way trickle of shoppers, was the gigantic re-development that crowned all the other changes to the street: the main entrance to a shopping centre that had replaced an entire block of homes. It was now clear why our one-time landlord was happy to let his building fall to pieces – there would be many developers eager to put up flats right opposite such a shiny mall, or even just a multi-storeyed car park.

I entered the mall in search of a drink (because despite the relatively pleasant mid-monsoon temperature, lugging that suitcase around for fifteen minutes had been hard work) as well as to take a look around. I also had some idea of trying to find a vantage point on one of the higher floors from which to view our old home more fully. Yes, I remember, it was our terrace I especially wanted to see, that had been the site of innumerable thrilling games of hide-and-seek and chor-police, with its pipes and ideal-for-concealment water-tanks, and the dangerous, strictly-off-limits, spiral wrought-iron stairway that winded down the left side of the building, which we defiantly used all the time despite ourselves being terrified of falling through one of the large gaps between the steps. But when I got to the fourth floor, from where I would have had an ideal view of the terrace opposite, I realised all the glass panels were heavily tinted, and besides, there was hardly anywhere one could get close enough to the glass to try and look through it without leaning over merchandise or attracting the attention of one of the sales assistants nearby.

On my way to the food and drink section of the department store I had entered, I noticed there was a big CD and DVD sale on, and stopped to take a look. Within just a minute’s browsing, I’d spotted heavily discounted box-sets of Seinfeld Season 6 and Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 2, so I picked these up and moved quickly on, afraid to look any further, because I had neither the time nor the space in my hand-luggage to go on any kind of buying binge right then. Instead, I efficiently located the drinks fridge, picked up a bottle of pomegranate juice, and looked around for the nearest till.

I had walked for a few metres, and was wondering whether or not it was worth the trouble to fish out my camera from my backpack, or even just my phone from my pocket, when a student who was sitting on a bench with an open laptop asked me if I was lost. 

Just then an announcement came over the PA system that owing to a sudden computer problem, the store unfortunately could not process any sales just now and would have to close for thirty minutes, therefore would all shoppers kindly make their way to the nearest exit? I however still kept walking towards the sales assistant I had spotted, but he claimed to be unable to help me, since all the tills were down.

‘Please come back in half an hour, Sir. It’ll be fixed by then.’

‘I can’t come back. Can’t you see I have a suitcase? From here I go straight to the airport.’

The guy apologised again, then asked me where I was going. I ignored the question.

‘Look, I really want these DVDs and this drink. How about I pay you, in cash, and you hand-write me a receipt, and later when the system is back on, you record it in the till?’

He asked my forgiveness a third time, and said that my plan wouldn’t work because the sensors at the exit would go off if the items hadn’t been scanned correctly.

‘But you said the system is down. Then the sensors won’t go off.’

‘No Sir, only the payment system is not working. Everything else is fine. It’s not a power-cut. Look, the lights and the air-conditioning are on.’

‘So you’re telling me that I want to buy these items, I have the money ready for them, I’m leaving the country in a few hours, but you still can’t sell them to me because of some stupid glitch in your system.’

‘That’s right, Sir. It’s very unfortunate that you don’t have a little more time. You’re going abroad? For higher studies or for job?’

Without aggravating myself any further on such an auspicious day, I planted the DVDs and the bottle of juice on the counter, and marched out. I got my drink from the small paan-shop right around the corner from the mall (although this guy didn’t have pomegranate juice, he also thankfully didn’t have a computerised payment system), and made it comfortably onto the 1 o’ clock airport bus, on which I was one of only eleven passengers. And everything else about the afternoon proceeded smoothly, so much so that even though, to my surprise, the coach took the old route through the middle of town rather than the ring-road around the outskirts, we still arrived at the final leg of the journey (where we would connect with the highway and reach the airport within twenty minutes) by 1.40, leaving me with over four hours to kill. Which was why, on a whim, I pressed the ‘stop’ button on the nearest handrail, picked up my suitcase from the luggage rack and asked to be let off at the last stop just before we got onto the highway. There was this new architecture college coming up on our left whose much-lauded campus had opened four months before, and I’d decided to quickly take a peek rather than waste the time hanging around the airport. Today, strangely, seemed to be an opportunity not just to say goodbye to the well-loved and thoroughly familiar parts of my city (for this reason, I’d enjoyed every minute of the coach-ride), but also to visit some of the exciting new locations cropping up all over town that I so far hadn’t had a chance to see.

There were some students chatting in the bus shelter, and I asked them to suggest some architectural highlights of their campus that I should particularly look out for. I also mentioned that I only had about twenty minutes because I wanted to be back in time for the airport bus at 2.30. Unfortunately though, I had happened upon a group of rather unfriendly, unhelpful students, one of whom replied cursorily that everything was plain to see right from the campus gate itself, and that all I needed to do was stay on the main path in the centre and glance to my left and right.

I was disappointed: I guess I had expected a little more enthusiasm from these people for the discipline they were supposedly studying. The guard at the gate took me, with my suitcase, for a new student, and pointed out the first-year hostel to me; I thought better of correcting his impression in case he then forbade me entry. Once I was inside, I realised that in a sense, the boy at the bus stop hadn’t been wrong – several, extremely innovative buildings, many in red sandstone, were immediately visible from the gate itself. My first thought was that the architect had attempted a modern interpretation of the Jantar Mantar.

I had walked for a few metres, and was wondering whether or not it was worth the trouble to fish out my camera from my backpack, or even just my phone from my pocket, when a student who was sitting on a bench with an open laptop asked me if I was lost. I said no, I’m just looking around, as if he was a shop assistant trying to foist help on me, but then decided to repeat my earlier question to this more helpful-seeming guy. Could he point a visitor towards the one or two buildings he would deem most architecturally noteworthy on campus?

‘Tell you what, I’ll show you,’ he said, shutting his laptop. ‘I’m Karan.’

‘Hey Karan, don’t take the trouble. I’m happy to just wander.’

‘No trouble. It’s a great campus. You should get a tour. How long do you have?’ and with that Karan did exactly what I’d been hoping for: within the next fifteen minutes he’d walked me briskly through the main administration building, the library foyer, the pool and gym entrance, and a glimpse of his first-year dormitory at the other end of the football field. In each case, this phenomenal student – who also had time to tell me about all the architecture-related software that was available to students these days, much of which he had already downloaded onto his laptop – had the necessary breadth of knowledge, and interest, to be able to name the various architects, eras and styles that had been referenced in this or that building or design detail. At the end of our tour, I was left feeling secretly embarrassed about how shallow and incorrect my initial association with the Jantar Mantar had been, grateful that I hadn’t mentioned this idiotic idea to Karan, as well as profoundly impressed at the point Karan was trying to illustrate through each of the examples on our walk – that the campus itself had been designed as a three-dimensional textbook, encompassing centuries and diverse traditions of planning and design for the students to live in, notice, and absorb.

At the end of our tour, I was also left feeling thirsty, so when Karan said that we were passing by the canteen and could stop for a drink, I took a quick look at my phone and said sure. Truth be told, taking the 2.30 bus would have been over-cautious on my part; I was a twenty-minute highway ride away from the airport. If I arrived at 3.20, that would still leave me with two hours and forty minutes in hand for my flight. This way, I wouldn’t have to cut short Karan’s stream of enthusiasm for his subject, and indeed, for his college campus; and also, standing him some refreshments would be a small way of showing my appreciation both for his intellectual keenness as well as his even rarer qualities of instant openness and warmth. This encounter was truly a wonderful note on which to leave my home-city, an outstanding example of energy and freshness to take abroad as a keepsake. In fact, I suddenly realised, my travels amongst the exciting and unfamiliar had already begun, and I hadn’t even got to the airport! All in all, this experience had completely wiped away any lingering sadness I might have felt about the transformation of my childhood street and the derelict condition of our former house, as well as any small measure of irritation against that sales assistant who couldn’t help me grab the great bargain that had already been in my hands. It probably wasn’t his fault: I guess he couldn’t let me go without scanning the DVDs properly.

At some point, while munching on an especially delicious fish cutlet and taking a sip of my Mountain Dew, I realised I had been lost in these thoughts and had failed to hear Karan asking where I was going. He repeated his question, and I was about to answer him when it occurred to me that it might be prudent to first check the time. It was 2.49, and I got up immediately because in my mental map of the campus, I was certain the bus stop was at least ten minutes away. Karan said, more like fifteen with a suitcase, but maybe I could make it if I ran. He still had quite a bit of food left on his plate, and clearly didn’t want to abandon it, so I asked him for the absolute quickest route back to the front gate, which he assured me wasn’t complicated at all – all I had to do was retrace our steps around the football field, continue past the admin building, and I would see the main path leading directly to the gate. At this point it was 2.51, so even my thanks were shouted out to him whilst I was already on the run.

At 2.54 (I was clutching my phone in my free hand as I ran, alternating it with the pull-out handle of the suitcase whenever I needed to rest an arm), I saw Shalu coming out of the administration building from about ten metres away, and couldn’t help but call out her name. And yet, such was the nature of my emergency that I couldn’t even stop and speak to the one person I had yearned to say goodbye to, but hadn’t been able to persuade to meet me before I left. She herself was so surprised at the apparition running past her (someone she’d taken pains to avoid for over eight months) shouting her name and dragging a huge suitcase behind him that she could only follow my progress open-mouthedly without a word. To this day (it’s been four years, and true to form, I still haven’t managed to see her again, even though I know where she has studied this entire time), I can summon up clearly that gaping but lovely face as I sped past, moving from her left to her right: a slow-motion shot of a spectator at a tennis match.

Maybe I should have stopped and talked to her. Maybe then these past four years would have been different. It would have seemed a suitably heroic gesture – a future gambled away on the off chance of love – and who knows, might have swayed her heart back towards me. Besides, in any case, although I couldn’t have known it at the time, the outcome of my mad dash that afternoon would still have been the same, so I might as well have given love one final shot, when it had cropped up so unexpectedly on the verge of my permanent departure.

I missed the three o’ clock bus by five minutes. No matter. I could still have made my flight by arriving at the airport at ten to four. But it was at the moment of handing my fare to the driver on the 3.30 bus that I realised I wasn’t wearing my jacket, in which I’d been carrying my passport. I had last placed it, owing to the sweat generated by an over-brisk campus tour, around the back of my chair in the canteen, planning to put it on again in five minutes right after I’d tackled that gorgeous-looking fish-cutlet. What a perfectly apt gastronomical note to go out on, I’d been thinking, at which point Karan had started talking, if I remember correctly, about features his college campus had in common with the city of Brasilia, which had also been constructed, apparently, out in the middle of nowhere. And right then, with Karan in the midst of articulating a complex idea, me two mouthfuls into my cutlet and half-wondering if there was such a thing as an evening class in architecture-appreciation, Baba had called to find out if I had already gone through security check. It would have been too much trouble to explain where I was just then, and why, so I’d simply promised to call back in a few minutes and hung up, and this had been another reason I’d forgotten about the jacket hanging behind me: later, while I waited at the bus stop for over twenty minutes for the half-three bus, my mind still awhirl with that sighting of Shalu, I had also been on the phone with my parents, giving them (each, separately) excited accounts of my afternoon adventures.

In case you’re wondering, Karan was no crook. He’d simply not noticed the jacket for the first little while after I dashed off, preoccupied with his own meal. Then he – understandably – assumed that I had caught my three o’ clock bus, and left the jacket with the canteen-wallahs, saying either a guy with a suitcase or a friend of his might come to ask for it.

The guy with the suitcase showed up at a quarter-to-four, managed to prove his case indubitably by asking the sceptic behind the counter to pull out his passport from the left-hand breast pocket, but couldn’t make it back in time for the 4.00 p.m. bus. By now the commuter rush-hour had begun, and it took him fifteen minutes to get an empty taxi. When the guy with the suitcase, and the jacket, arrived at the airport at 5.10 (the highway during evening rush-hour was not the smooth twenty-minute journey he had anticipated), his plane to Frankfurt was still on the tarmac, but he simply was not allowed to board, despite his lamentable condition and his heart-rending pleas that his entire life could turn on this moment. Looking back, his lamentable condition – sweaty, desperate and out of breath – might actually have worsened his case.

Here’s one thing that did work out for me later that week: I managed to return to the mall on the street of my childhood, and buy those Seinfeld and Curb… box-sets, as well as, on an afterthought, that appetising-looking bottle of pomegranate juice. I had also prepared for what would (inevitably) happen, and told the sales assistant when I ran into him that I was back from my business trip abroad, and that he could expect to see me quite regularly from now on.

From Lost Men (Hachette India, 2013). Republished with permission of the author. 

Rajorshi Chakraborti

Rajorshi Chakraborti

Rajorshi Chakraborti is an Indian novelist, essayist and short story writer. He was born in 1977 in Calcutta, and grew up there and in Mumbai. He has also lived and studied in Canada, England and Scotland, and worked, between 2007 and 2010, as a lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. He currently lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

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