Real Time

Amit Chaudhuri

Death can be an awkward subject and this awkwardness is intensified if someone takes their own life. It is a difficult thing to talk about. Chaudhuri’s story exemplifies this difficulty, skirting around the suicide at its centre, dropping fractured hints, while focusing on the utterly ordinary behaviour of the mourners.

Traffic and Tuberoses

The avoidance of the real subject is clear from the in media res opening, with Mr and Mrs Mitra being driven through busy streets. Chaudhuri gives the reader no indication what their destination is, but we pick up a sense of unease. It is apparent in the sudden imperative commanding of Abdul to drive ‘slowly’ and in the unexplained question ‘Well, what should we do?’ The focus of the narrative is on the small disappointments of the Mitras’ marriage rather than their current objective, but it is suggested that the focus on those disappointments, and Mr Mitra’s speaking like ‘a distraught child’, have been caused by the unease that they both share about their journey. The dialogue gives some clues, with Mr Mira’s euphemistic references to ‘the circumstances’, then Mrs Mitra’s naming of a ‘bereavement’. As it turns out, even that is a euphemism; it is the reality of that bereavement which creates the unease.

The first half of the story presents the Mitras’ journey to the ceremony. There are details of Mr Mitra’s sweaty socks, his haggling for condolence flowers and the difficulty of finding their way through the chaotic street of Kolkata, where nobody seems to be sure of the location of ‘Nishant Apartments’. There is slight comedy in Mrs Mitra’s impatience with her husband, ‘prodding her husband’s arm with a finger’ as she demands that he ask a watchman for directions. There are details of the architecture of ‘two-storeyed houses’, an ‘incongruously large bungalow’ and the apartments being the result of ‘some older house’ being ‘sold off to property developers’. Though the ceremony is mentioned, it is in the context of the Mitras’ judgement that ‘they didn’t think people would be fed’ and their domestic decision to have their cook prepare ‘rice… daal and … fish’ for their return. While there is a tragedy at the heart of the story, Chaudhuri’s focus is on the discomforts and concerns of the Mitras.

Within the first half’s presentation of the journey, there is one paragraph, almost smuggled in, about the dead woman. It is preceded by Mr Mitra’s question ‘Why did she do it?’ which is the reader’s first indication of the reason why this is not a ‘normal case of bereavement’. The narrative indicates that ‘they didn’t have the answer’ to the question. Nor does the story; it remains unanswered to the end. The paragraph creates a greater puzzle, as it presents what seems to be the charmed life of Anjali, marrying into the Poddar family, blessed by both the goddesses of ‘wealth’ and ‘learning’, shortly after successful masters graduation from university.

Shraddh Small Talk

The second half of the story describes the ceremony itself, though it is low-key and slightly awkward. As Mr Mitra notes, ‘Shraddh ceremonies weren’t right without their mixture of convivial pleasure and grief’. Despite ‘a man singing a Brahmo sangeet on a harmonium’, there is little which is ceremonial. Instead, Chaudhuri presents a ‘bored’ Mr Mitra and focuses on his bodily functions: his ‘stomach growled’, he eagerly picks from ‘a platter of sandesh’, sips ‘faintly chilled Fanta’ and finally ‘urinated into the commode.’ Despite the gift of the tuberoses, which lie with ‘three of four other bouquets’ at the side of the room, there is nothing ceremonial, mournful or even respectful here.

Amongst this there is passage of small talk between Mr Mitra and a slight acquaintance, Mr Sarbadhikarti, prefaced by Mr Mitra’s feeble joke. But even this conversation fizzles out into an empty argument about the engineering profession before Mr Sarbadhikarti scuttles off to relieve his ‘swollen… bladder’. Their mutual embarrassment is explained by the fact that they are ‘avoiding something; it was there being there that they were avoiding.’

Avoiding Anjali

The conversation between the two men neatly mirrors the entire short story. Though Anjali’s death is at the centre of the story, her name is only mentioned six times, and two of those are references to ‘Anjali’s mother’. From fragments through the story, the reader gradually pieces together an apparently perfect marriage, but ultimately an unhappy one, with two periods of separation. She had no children. She jumped from a balcony. There is nothing more. It is a tragedy and a puzzle, but one the reader only half glimpses as Chaudhuri focuses on Mr Mitra, who has only ‘known Anjali slightly’ and feels no particular grief. He is eager to be gone, indicating in body language code to his wife – ‘he caught his wife’s eye and nodded at her’ – that it is time to leave. His final comment has nothing to do with Anjali, or the ceremony, but his own bodily concerns: ‘I’m quite ravenous.’

Narrative methods to consider:
  • third person focalised narration
  • characterisation
  • structure
  • narrative focus