A Strange and Sublime Address
by Amit Chaudhuri (1991)
NYRB Classics (2024)
154 pp

This month NYRB Classics is reissuing Amit Chaudhuri’s first three novels with some striking covers. It isn’t often that you find a NYRB spine that doesn’t also have the classic NYRB cover, and I’m glad for that as it makes the exceptions all the more special! I plan to read all three, so I started at the beginning.

A Strange and Sublime Address, first published in 1991 when Chaudhuri was in his late 20s, is a collection of childhood moments that so richly evoke physical sensations within particular moments of time that they start to feel like one’s own experiences. These are moments captured by ten-year-old Sandeep. Every year Sandeep and his mother leave busy Bombay to visit family in Calcutta. It’s remarkable to me because, other than one little bit of intensity, not a lot happens in this book, and yet, reading it slowly over the course of a week, I always felt engaged. It allowed me to sit back and soak in sensations, with much of the activity happening on the periphery among the adults.

Later, after washing their hands, they went up to the second and topmost storey of the house. Sandeep’s mother and Mamima reclined on the large bed. Their conversation was a transparent stream that occasionally trickled into desert patches of silence.

Sandeep’s uncle, Chhotomama, is portrayed as a bit of an unknown entity, making him a bit scary. When Chhotomama wakes in the morning to get to work he is a bit loud; the whole house takes a breath when he finally leaves. We can tell Sandeep is always mindful of where his uncle is. This is not because Chhotomama is mean or intentionally threatening; he’s just unknown. He’s an uncle this ten-year-old boy sees rarely.

Another highlight for me is the sense of a season away from home, of basking in the moments.

On Saturday, a cool breeze surprised them. It smelled of wet earth, sodden leaves. It had rained somewhere in the villages, in groves and fields, and the breeze had travelled to this lane, bringing news of rain from the far-off place of its beginnings. They had congregated after lunch on the double bed on the second storey, when it ran its fingers down their backs, making them break out in goose-flesh. There was something erotic about the first breeze that brought the monsoons.

I don’t know what to expect with Chaudhuri’s next two books, Afternoon Raag and Freedom Song, but I’m looking forward to them. I’m also excited to see that NYRB Classics is releasing pretty much all of Chaudhuri’s novels, given that a number of them have “forthcoming” next to them in the title list at the front of this book.

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