Upamanyu Chatterjee’s first volume of short stories, that includes three pieces written in the 1980s, showcases the trajectory of his writing career
Three of the 12 long stories that make up this fine collection, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s first, were written in the mid-1980s. The remaining ones were written between 2014 and 2018. Taken together, they showcase the trajectory of what has been a distinguished and distinctive writing career.
Many readers familiar with Chatterjee’s backlist of six novels (and the 2018 novella, Revenge of the Non-vegetarian) would see him as a writer of comedy, belonging to a tradition going from Rabelais to Jane Austen to Howard Jacobson. But that would be facile. Particularly from his 2006 novel, Weight Loss, Chatterjee’s work has also been permeated with a sense of darkness, a sort of gallows humour.
“Well, life is dark, isn’t it? Mostly, it’s dreadful,” Chatterjee had told me in a 2010 interview after the publication of Way to Go, a novel which was powered by the writer’s trademark comedy, but was preoccupied with thoughts of dwindling, death and redemption. “At the same time, death is funny too. I mean, look at the fuss we make of it,” he said.
This duality runs through the collection, and more of it is evident in the stories written between 2014 and 2018 than in the early ones. The early ones feel, in a sense, like meeting old friends. In The Killings in Madna, first published in the London Magazine in 1987, we make (or remake) the acquaintance of Agastya Sen, the cynical, ironical bureaucrat with a knack for the devastating putdown, the hero of Chatterjee’s first novel, English, August (1988), the character who had enthralled a generation of readers when this breakout novel was first published. Jamun, the protagonist of his second novel, The Last Burden (1993) and Way to Go, appears in Bombay, 1984. And Bunny, the central character of The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (Chatterjee’s first published work, in London Magazine, in 1985) exemplifies the sort of idlers, itinerants, dreamers, dissemblers and egotists who would later go on to people Chatterjee’s novels for more than 30 years.
The way we live now and the issues that touch and transform our lives have begun to become central to Chatterjee’s later work. No surprise, then, that of the later stories, Othello Sucks talks about Shakespeare, race and privilege. Girl is a fictionalised account of the Arushi incident (without mentioning the name of the murdered teenager and the events recounted through the eyes of a classmate of hers). In Three-seven-seven and the Blue Gay Gene, a homosexual boy extracts revenge on his stalker. And Can’t Take This Shit Anymore concerns itself with manual scavenging.
Chatterjee’s mordant wit gives vim and fizz to this collection, generously sprinkled as it is with his murderously acerbic bon mots. But just as the bawdy, exaggerated, laugh aloud fun of his earlier novels have been somewhat sublimated in his later work, the later stories, too, are bleaker, less obviously uproarious. (Think of the difference between Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Exit Ghost.)
The elegant, typography led cover of this beautifully produced book says that this is only the first volume of the collected stories. Chatterjee has never been in any hurry to publish; years have gone by between the publication of successive novels. But that mention of Volume One on the cover is a promise. Chatterjee will be back with more stories. On the evidence of this collection, I can’t wait.