Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri
This loving, gentle book evokes the chaotic colours and sounds of Bombay through the eyes of an expatriate writer, returning to his childhood home. Weaving through time at an eddying pace, Amit Chaudhuri describes his childhood friend Ramu in criss-crossing encounters and fragments. Beautifully written and evocative, this book immerses the reader in a whirlwind of impressions – of the narrator, his friend and the city itself – vividly realised through the food and the gestures of the proprietors, as writer Chaudhuri attends to various readings and publishing events.
Chaudhuri reflects on the legacy of his birthplace, amidst the duties of a novelist on the press circuit. Ramu, always remembered, waited for and recollected, becomes as yearned-for and elusive as Godot. Chaudhuri writes: ‘In the meantime, because I’m writing I’m thinking of Bombay. I think of Ramu. The Ramu I know and the Ramu I’m writing about have become indistinguishable.’ There is a beautiful quality to this book’s structure. At one point, Chaudhuri elucidates the difference between a novel and a poem, and it seems to be an important clue: ‘You can follow the arc that characters’ lives make in a novel … over the novel’s duration, you’re witness to a flowering and attrition. The poem gives you a beginning endlessly. It represents a fascination with openings. It never wants to move, in effect, beyond the first paragraph: the magic of the start. It’s a kind of addiction.’
In this novel, Chaudhuri does dwell in the magic of a beginning – of a memory, an anecdote, a fragment of history – each one distinct and complete as a fingerprint. A Friend of my Youth is a wonderful and evocative read that will especially appeal to fans of contemporary auto-fiction, as practised by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk and our own Helen Garner.