There have been other stories of poor and lonely students living in London, though perhaps none quite so poignant and profound as Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad. It’s Margaret Thatcher’s London, circa 1985, and Ananda, the main character, has already been in London for two years, attending a school that must be the University of London, though it is never named. He’s come to the United Kingdom to study English literature, although what Ananda wants more than anything else is to become a poet. His mother, who recently visited him, has returned to India. Ananda is homesick and often bewildered by English customs and English people. He has few friends—except for an uncle who also lives in London—and spends much of his time by himself in his claustrophobic room. Not so different from thousands of other international students.
Ananda watches too much TV (often programs for children), cuts many of his classes, and eats inexpensive but filling Chinese meals because that is all he can afford. There’s an Indian restaurant directly across the street from where he lives, but he doesn’t trust their preparation. Night after night he either orders the Singapore noodles or the fried rice from the Chinese restaurant and takes those meals back to his room, eating alone. Upstairs, there are other Indians in the same building, a couple who make constant noise, but he has no relationship with them. His loneliness is largely his own choice.
He’s also a hopeless romantic. For his degree, he’s expected to study the entire range of English literature, but he’s mostly interested in the Romantic poets and several contemporary ones. He lusts after his tutor, who is a woman. “He was a passionate apologist for love. He was like a virginal Victorian girl: love and sex existed in separate compartments. He would argue and argue that year and the next for love in the jaded circles of the English department—the Vision of Eros, which, as Auden had said, was near-impossible to champion. For to speak of love was like ‘talking about ghosts’—‘most people had heard of them, but very few people knew one.” Temporary alleviation of his sexual drive comes from the porno shops in SoHo—where he frequently wanders—taking his purchases home and masturbating. He’s fully aware of his debasement.
Ananda’s one “friend” is his much older uncle, Radhesh, his mother’s brother, who has lived in a one-room bed-sit for 26 years. Equally hopeless as his nephew, Radhesh held a decent job for many years and, because of his frugality, he has earned an adequate pension. Once each week or so the two of them get together and go out for a meal, which Ananda badly needs because he’s always hungry, and his uncle always pays for it. But their relationship is much more than that because Radhesh has become Ananda’s surrogate father. The two of them spend a good amount of time walking the streets of London, or riding the double decker buses around the city, exploring areas far from where they live. Down through the years, it’s become a tender relationship, though Ananda feels a little guilty about always being on the receiving end of his uncle’s generosity.
The two of them talk frequently about literature, with Ananda praising the British poets. His uncle cannot stop eulogizing Tagore, who also lived in London at the beginning of the twentieth century. Radhesh has become invisible, living in the city’s cracks, much like the main character of Kamala Markandaya’s masterpiece, The Nowhere Man (1973). He tells his nephew, “There are many planes of existence. The people on the lower don’t see the ones on the higher. For example, there are beings around us now we can’t see.” Conversely, Radhesh can walk the streets of one of the world’s greatest cities and be seen by no one. The musings between the two of them are the highlight of the story.
The parallels between this novel and the Odyssey are tangential at best. Radhesh has been away from India for a long time and it is doubtful if he will ever return. Ananda certainly will return, though the author hints that his delay may be last many more years. Yet the center of focus is not so much exile and loneliness but survival in a city that is often inhospitable to others, especially during the time of Margaret Thatcher’s rule. In short, it’s the ubiquitous issue of frightened immigrants everywhere. Very little happens in this profound little novel. The joys of reading it are elsewhere. Chaudhuri is a master of nuance and tone, of displacement and despair.
Amit Chaudhuri: Odysseus Abroad
Knopf, 224 pp., $24
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.