The monsoons have arrived in Kolkata. The skies are grey, and the rain comes down in drizzles, and sometimes in thick sheets. The one thing that you see every day now, almost like an omnipresent entity, often dictating the course of your day through their whims, is clouds. And Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds is an embodiment of the season and its harbinger, darkening the horizon. Like their geographical counterparts, the clouds in this book bring respite to some, distress to others, but spare none.
Clouds is a story of people and places, and the synergy that sometimes develops between the two. It is based in Mumbai – serendipitously I read a big chunk of the book during my own trip to the city this year, my first ever visit, and in a way it has coloured my view of the place. Clouds has two distinct narratives, of people belonging to two distinct worlds, yet both find their places in the metropolis. Farhad Billimoria is a psychotherapist spending his last week in his hometown before moving to San Francisco in search of greener pastures, in more senses than one. Having undergone a divorce not too long ago, he is ready to go back into the world of romance but feels that Indian society does not hold much promise to a man of his age – he has just turned forty two. But fate has a penchant for irony. After two years of a romantic desert, his last week becomes a whirlwind of feminine companionship. There is a heady mix of lust and the spark of connection that comes with the first flushes of amour. Zahra Irani, that feisty yoga practitioner who just happens to be based in San Francisco herself, is everything that makes man’s blood boil – she has grace and charm and a certain mystique about her, she is quirky and carefree, and she oozes sultriness, a siren call that is hard for any man to resist. With her Farhad’s ‘Billimoric’ self seems to discover a new energy in life, a new sense of direction and hope. And yet she is not the only one. A chance late night accident leads Farhad to the door of Hemlata, the five feet ten English professor whose domestic South Indian household and strong, restrained and more than a little domineering demeanour bely her research into the erotic lives of human beings. As the two keep meeting over the next few days, Hemlata’s self-assured, slightly mocking attitude challenges Farhad, calling to another deep-seated longing in him, something that no Zahra can ever fulfil. By the time his day of departure from the country arrives, Farhad has had experiences that have changed him permanently, forced him to grow, and has set him on a path that is quite unlike what he may have envisioned a week earlier.
On the other end of the spectrum there is the narrative of Eeja and Ooyi, their absentee son Bhagaban and their temporary caretaker Rabi. Stuck in Mumbai for Eeja’s treatment, far away from their home in Bhuwaneshwar, the old couple pine for their roots constantly, painting a picture of a Bhuwaneshwar of memory, to a point where it seems like that is where they still reside in their minds, even as their bodies must stay confined in a tiny apartment in the bustling megalopolis. Eeja and Ooyi represent a way of life familiar to a large section of the Indian population – the Hindu upper caste household where the patriarch is the unquestioned master, the mother a self-sacrificing, long suffering, religious woman whose entire being centres around her husband and son and her God, and their longing for the hearth and home, the roots built through generations of association. They have been left by Bhagaban in the care of Rabi, a spirited tribal boy of the Cloudpeople who has for some time been the former’s brother-in-arms in their fight against the Company, an elusive and almost demonic entity which threatens the very existence of Rabi’s homeland, his community and the way of life they have known for ages. Bhagaban is a successful film maker who has made the fight for tribal rights his life’s goal, much to his parent’s chagrin. To them, Rabi remains a mere servant and a lesser human being, and nothing that Rabi does seems to be able to change that. Until one fine day, when he tells them the story of the Cloudmaker, that childlike god of his people who has created man through his boyish games. Something seems to shift in the relationship these people share, opening up new worlds to them all.
Choudhury’s style of storytelling has an almost cinematic tone. Just like movies showcase disparate lives through separate screens while holding them together with the glue of some underlying idea, the two different worlds of Clouds never meet, yet it is easy for the reader to view them parallelly as though from above through a giant camera, unfolding at the same time in the same place, the common motif of clouds being their only connecting thread. It is almost as if the reader is looking down on them from a cloud herself, a keen but detached spectator. This is not a thriller, nor a mystery nor an adventure; not a lot ‘happens’ through the course of the text. And yet so much does happen in the minds of the people, even the most mundane, everyday occurrences come to take on enormous significance. The people change, they evolve, gradually but also overnight, discovering more about themselves, being completely new human beings one day from another. And life goes on all the time, throwing its own surprises and stumble blocks every now and then.
Farhad’s story is a close look into the dynamics between man and woman, and the different relationships they may share. It is not unidirectional; the varieties and possibilities remain infinite. And so we see Farhad happily contemplating a rosy future with Zahra in Los Angeles, thinking about possible professional collaborations, though mostly he is thinking about the breathless hours spent together in the bedroom and the almost surreal high they take him to – but before long there comes a darker hue to this idyllic dream, and all that seemed too good to be true now look prohibitive and suffocating to him. It is while in this dark state of mind that the city throws open to him a new face of itself, through a most unlikely source – Hemlata. The suave and snobbish South Bombay shrink is swept into a different world by the forbidding Borivali-bred English professor with the impossible-to-guess double life. “All the sex came from Zahra, all the text from Hemlata”, feels Farhad, and somewhere, some readers can hear a twang of recognition and relatability to this dichotomy in their own lives.
Through Farhad and Zahra, the uninitiated reader gets a sneak into the lives of Parsis, that once significant community from the Middle East whose vastly diminished numbers now battle on with a brave face in Mumbai. One gets a taste of their history in the country, as also some of their distinctive idiosyncrasies – Farhad’s most lasting love affair is with Zelda, his battered old Maruti 800, and Zahra’s uncle Sheriyar is the ubiquitous Parsi old man, rambunctious and flirtatious with infinite confidence in his often-hare-brained business ideas. Witnessing Farhad fall in love is also quite a comic treat for the reader – he steps into that same bubble of buoyant optimism and nothing-can-ever-go-wrong-again sense of confidence, and his mind builds the same castles in the air that do people decades younger than him. Love makes a happy, goofy fool out of human beings, and it is comforting to realise that people much older and more experienced than I can end up behaving in the exact same manner when assailed by the arrows of Cupid.
Mr. Choudhury’s female characters in the narrative are particularly interesting. They are from two separate generations, but three completely separate worlds. Ooyi is the all-too-familiar grandmother who cannot separate her existence from that of her husband’s and her son’s, yet has a level of self-possession and immovable faith in the God of her choice that seems to go beyond every other identity she may possess. Zahra and Hemlata, though contemporaries, have nearly nothing in common, at least on surface. Zahra represents the vivacious and ultra-feminine nymph whose very existence titillates men, a fact that she knows and enjoys. Hemlata is the firebrand feminist, with her cynical, slightly condescending attitude towards men and the tendency to aggressively assert herself as not merely an equal of but maybe even superior to the common man. But a little reading between the lines unveils a similar strength of character and quiet force of will in Zahra, something that Farhad soon recognises and comes to fear. Hemlata too has the same feminine softness and longings under her tough exterior, and her view of the world turns some of the most age-old and apparently conservative family values into potentially the greatest forms of rebellion in society. Both Zahra and Hemlata represent something of what the modern day Indian woman aspires towards, though Ooyi remains anything but an anachronism in a society that continues to be steeped in traditional values. As a woman from the fag end of the millennial generation, my only complaint, if you can call it that, about these early millennial women, is that they have ultimately put themselves in specific archetypes – I hope that my contemporaries and I would be able to steer clear of prejudiced stereotypes about flighty eye candies and sexless social warriors, and a find way to make the two types more mutually compatible than they have been seen to be so far.
The Billimoric shenanigans lend sensuality to the book, but Clouds finds its true depth and value as a novel through the narrative surrounding the old couple, their son and their tribal caretaker. Mr. Choudhury explores ideas about religion, politics and democracy interwoven with the personal trajectories of the lives these people lead. It was through this book that I was made aware about the Niyamgiri bauxite mining project, Vedanta’s involvement, and the protests by the Dongria Kondh tribe to save their land. The allegory is unmistakable, and brilliantly brought to life by the author. The high caste Hindu Bhagaban, a successful member of the urban elite appoints himself the messiah of the (fictitious) Cloudpeople and leads them on the way to democracy, encouraging them to fight the evil Company and its threat to their sacred Cloud Mountain through electoral politics. There is a certain sense of elitist saviourism in his attitude towards the tribal community, but here I remain conflicted about whether that is acceptable. Is it okay to treat tribal people as essentially juvenile and in need of guidance because they have continued to remain distant from the force of Western civilization? Or should they be accorded the right to complete self-determination in the full knowledge that they are at a distinct disadvantage in their indigenous ‘other’ness with the modern world? Their story also brings to light other questions about the traditional lives led by tribal communities around the country, the threats they face, and how far their ways of life are viable and sustainable in an ever-changing world hurtling far away from age old customs. In the midst of all these questions is Rabi, who has left his people and his home on the banks of Tinninadi and served his Bhagaban Bhai in Bhuwaneshwar, helping him prepare to contest the elections which Bhagaban means to win this time, and pass on the baton to Rabi himself the next time. Yet even as the days of elections draw closer, Bhagaban’s father falls sick and has to be transported to Mumbai for treatment and convalescence, and Rabi must look after the old people so that his Bhai can prepare for the elections in peace.
Cooped up in their convalescent home in Mumbai, with two cranky old people as company, Rabi spends a lot of time getting to know his own mind. Unexpectedly, he comes to form a bond with Eeja and Ooyi, as forced proximity sometimes does to people. The questions of caste and religion come up repeatedly, and Rabi’s mental anguish at being treated as a lesser being is apparent, and yet there is no sense of hostility. Gradually, grudgingly, Eeja comes to open up to him, and Ooyi comes to accept him, introducing him to the world of Hindu religion and custom. Stories are shared, traditions are compared, and before the reader’s eyes there is a coalescence between seemingly irreconcilable and oceanic gaps, and humanity emerges sublime. The novelist’s greatest victory is forcing the reader to think, to ponder on the greater questions of life, even while giving her a different reality to experience life through. Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds offers both in good measure. It is a coming of age story; by the end of the novel all the major characters are different people, having gone through turbulence and often ending up very differently than any future they had imagined.
When you think about it, you realise that life is like clouds: it floats about, sometimes as free and light as a bird and sometimes heavy with the weight of rain, it is sometimes scattered by an aimless, directionless wind, while at other times it hustles purposefully towards its destination, ready to wash away the misery of summer heat with its watery blessing. Sometimes it has a soft breeze for company, but sometimes it comes with its share of lightning and thunderbolt. The same uncertainties that make the misty members of the sky beautiful impart variety to life. In that sense, the story about the birth of Cloudmaker can be taken as the summary of everything that life entails. That one story alone makes Clouds a book worth reading and remembering, and maybe even rereading years later.
I read the book months ago, but the aftertaste has remained as fresh as ever. I haven’t been reading a lot of fiction lately, nothing that has made me think so much at any rate. This is Mr. Choudhury’s second book, released early this year almost a decade after his first. But I read both in quick succession, and I have developed a fondness for the lilting flow of his language. Like Arzee, this book too has a certain nebulous taste to the narrative, but it is much more contained. He likes to leave his endings open, but with Clouds anything different would have been out of place. As life unfolds, surprising us at its turns, so does Clouds, leaving the reader space to draw her own conclusions.
Hopefully, I won’t have to wait to cross over to the wrong side of thirty for the next ride through Mumbai on Mr. Choudhury’s wagon!
Ps: I was wrong, the monsoon has not arrived in Kolkata; we just had a few promising days when I started writing this piece. But read the book anyway, it will well make up for the ruthless and parched weather outside and quench the thirst within!