FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Poor and Lonely in Thatcher’s London

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 odysseusabroadVictorian 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: clarson@american.edu.

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

January 22, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess
Raouf Halaby
The Little Brett Kavanaughs from Covington Catholic High
Craig Collins
Why Did Socialism Fail?
Dean Baker
The Trump Tax Cut is Even Worse Than They Say
Stanley L. Cohen
The Brazen Detention of Marzieh Hashemi, America’s Newest Political Prisoner
Karl Grossman
Darth Trump: From Space Force to Star Wars
Haydar Khan
The Double Bind of Human Senescence
Alvaro Huerta
Mr. President, We Don’t Need Your Stinking Wall
Howard Lisnoff
Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali
Nicole Patrice Hill – Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Scarlet “I”: Climate Change, “Invasive” Plants and Our Culture of Domination
Jonah Raskin
Disposal Man Gets His Balls Back
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail