Conceived as a short story like Ulysses and penned as one, unlike Ulysses, and having the same gestation period—8 years—as Ulysses, Clouds is Chandrahas Choudhury’s second novel. The parallel may even extend a little further. Writing in the second decade of the twenty-first century and writing in English in India, Choudhury may be said to have faced the same problem that James Joyce did, crafting his modernist fiction almost a hundred years ago. The problem is this: how to fashion a prosaic world into an aesthetic form that can nevertheless double as an alluring commodity—in a word, fiction. Yes, fiction is pre-eminently the capitalistic form—perhaps I can use the word unabashedly, seeing that it is not a taboo word anymore either in criticism or in literature, as the novel under review demonstrates—because it exists to meld into unity the warring desires for beauty and utility, for love and money. Not all fiction foreground this as stylishly as Clouds does.
In hitting upon fiction as form, as he made the crucial transition from literary criticism and reviewing—he still practises both—Choudhury seems to have been face to face with this truth about novels far more insistently than in his first novel, Aarzee the Dwarf, published in 2009. This core truth is none other than a perceived contradiction between the concrete and the abstract, or, to cite another prominent antinomy voiced by an important female character from the novel, Hemlata, the face of love and the bodies of lust that characterizes our experience in a postmodern society, and that which the novel form is invited to resolve.
Clouds has a remarkable opening. Standing on a milling Bombay street, Farhad Billimoria, the central character of the novel—or, I should perhaps say, of the Bombay section of the novel, the novel being split almost evenly between a city part and a country part (Choudhury drags in here a tribal village from his home State Odisha)—is faced with sudden doubt. Is the ravishingly beautiful woman he had met the night before at a party somewhere in the vicinity, as the perfume wafting in the air seems to suggest? Or is it an illusion of commodification, a trick produced by the assembly line production of capitalism: ‘Already, though, I could see a flaw in my scented syllogism. Was I in the vicinity of not Zahra herself but only of the perfume she favoured? Was this another victory of the endless replicability of the capitalistic world over the particularity of human beings?’ (p. 3).
This is a dilemma that resonates throughout, taking on new forms and expressions, but with no hope of easy resolution except at a personal or subjective level. The author himself breaks cover to declare in a telling parenthesis: ‘The day this tension is eliminated, humanity perishes’ (p. 3). It is this confrontation of the question that is foundational to the postmodern experience that lifts Clouds from the common run of Anglophone novels dealing with familial and national issues, and places it in the top order of contemporary novels that are local and global at the same time.
The novel is as much a portrait of Indian democracy in its seventieth year as it is a searching philosophical speculation on the status of language and fictional representation. There is, on the one hand, the phenomenon of brain drain, and sexual and political repression with the spectre of totalitarianism looming in the distance. On the other hand is the display of machismo and male bravado. Farhad is about to leave Bombay for San Francisco on the eve of his 42nd birthday. As if to egg him on, he meets a glamorous NRI woman named Zarah and, in an almost fairy-tale like setting, has a tempestuous sexual liaison with her. A series of mischances, however, throw him in the path of—again in a setting that hovers between dream and nightmare—Hemlata. She is the unusual ‘other woman’ who can reveal to him another side of Indian polity and sexuality, founded on the equality of sexes, on a rejection of heteronormativity—women must ‘take back the night’ from which they have been long excluded. Interestingly, this is a polity that is not available but is outlined as, in the beautiful phrasing of Raymond Williams, the ‘practice of possibility’.
The somewhat traditional story of a man flanked by two women, one of them a gleaming princess and the other an ugly duckling, is given a new twist in the novel. We see it rewritten in terms of the story of a man caught between a woman of show and a genuine woman. The former is a fire brand to appearances, but demands male sexual domination, while the latter wants friendly relationships and solidarity unclouded by sex—but, of course, that is not absolutely certain given the growing chemistry between them. The former glamourizes America and damns India. The latter criticizes a hide-bound and patriarchal India while being under no illusion about the unreality of an ersatz America which breeds ‘super-sized consumerist desires’ (p. 167). So caught between them, Farhad must relook at himself, and especially at his pet theory of clouds which suggests endless self-gratification. Listen to Dr. Farhad Billimoria’s psycho-analysis-scented—he is a practising psychotherapist—reflection: ‘The mind … was a series of moods and mental states. And some mental states were so dramatic that they stood just like clouds in the sky, briefly discrete and dramatic, … then also fading away. It was this quality that made the self such an interesting place—a self that appeared stable or readable to others, but that might stealthily be drifting into some new place on its own clouds’ (p. 13). Farhad—and I suspect the author too—has almost apotheosized the atomized self celebrated by capitalism and postmodernism.
Most readers of the novel are likely to draw another order of symbolism from the titular clouds, connected to the country part of the novel, featuring the life of the people of the cloud tribe of Odisha. Here, clouds stand for man’s rootedness in the soil and nature, for bonds of community and a simple animistic faith. It must be pointed out that this world is not directly, dramatically presented in the novel, as the city world is, but is given to us through the novelistic equivalent of long distance dialling.
The happenings in Tininadi, such as the battle over the cloud mountain, Niyamgiri, in Malkangiri of Odisha, between the Company—a real-life allusion to Vedanta—and the cloud people, a veiled reference to the Dongriya Kondhs defending Niyamgiri from being commercially exploited, occur off-stage. They are reported through long stretches of conversation among an aged couple, Eeja and Ooi, and their caretaker, Rabi, a boy from the cloud tribe in the Tininadi village. The conversations unfold in a Bombay where the aged couple, put up there by their only son, Bhagaban with Rabi as a caretaker, lives in a state of limbo. Bhagaban is a television serial maker-turned politician who is fighting an election in Bhubaneswar to give political representation to the cloud people in their bid to save their habitat.
The novelist’s way of calling up the world of the tribal people through this indirect method, the method of disembodied presence, is, on one level, striking. But, on another level, it may be a reflection of the loosening hold of the mythical mode of life associated with the tribal people on the imagination of an urban, metropolitan India. Rabi’s recounting of the ‘origin myth’ of the cloud people, beautiful beyond belief and words, is met with Eeja’s typical urban dweller cynicism when he says it is only a ‘metaphor’ which is being mistaken for a ‘scientific proposition’ (p. 193). As the plot thickens, the scientific and rational side is seen to win out over the poetic and mythical side. The centre cannot hold at Tininadi and finally, things fall apart. The cloud way of life disintegrates as the Company alternately coerces and seduces the tribals into opting for the glitter and glitz of modern civilization. Rabi is prescient enough to know that there is no return for him either to Tininadi or to his mentor Bhagaban Bhai, who has turned apostate after winning in the Assembly election, or indeed to the half-made society that is Bhubaneswar.
The presence of two narratives in Clouds with no crossing of paths or meeting of minds between Bombay and Bhubaneswar might intrigue many at a first reading. But even that first reading cannot fail to give one a whiff of the novel’s dialogic design in juxtaposing the desiring face of a postmodern society in the city half with its dark underside in the country half. Add to that the Bollywood style ending with Farhad and Hemlata on the ground, and Clouds is guaranteed to offer a complete and rich reading experience.
Himansu S Mohapatra recently retired as Professor of English at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.