Clouds. His first novel Arzee the Dwarf had come out in 2009 and a number of people, including yours truly, have been waiting for Choudhury to repeat his magic.
Clouds is set almost entirely in Mumbai, a light, airy and fluffy Mumbai which is never depressing, though it could easily have been. This is as much a result of the quality of Choudhury’s prose as it is a result of Choudhury’s outlook on life, as superimposed on his characters. Old man Eeja has come to Mumbai, all the way from Odisha, for his medical treatment. He stays in a new and cheap flat on the outskirts of Borivali, with his wife Ooi and Rabi, their Man Friday, a tribal from Cloud Mountain. Eeja and Ooi’s son Bhagaban has gone back to Bhubaneswar, for he has more pressing matters to attend to there, but his spirit is nevertheless a constant among Eeja, Ooi and Rabi. As for Farhad and Zahra, they never meet Eeja or his clan, and they lead a much different lifestyle, with values so much more at place in San Francisco than in Mumbai, but they too are enriched by the clouds around them.
From the outset, the two sets of characters move towards their targets. Farhard towards an exit from Mumbai for San Francisco and Bhagaban towards the climax of his struggle against the Company which wants to takeover Cloud Mountain and extract all its valuable ore, at the cost of possibly ruining it. However, Choudhury’s world is one of grey and things are not always what they seem, though Choudhury makes all effort to appear to be an innocent jholawala.
Farhad is all sorted until his world comes crashing down on him, the result of Zahra’s genuine outburst one night in Udvada, a few hours after they had listened to a Narendra Modi speech, that he be a true man and fuck the brains out of her instead of being a politically correct goody, goody, sweet and tender, wafer biscuit. Can the progressive and post-modern Farhad put himself together and get on with Zahra and her yoga classes in SFO after such a downpour? Do please read Clouds to find out for yourself!
The South Indian and feminist Hemlata is the pole opposite of Zahra and at first Farhad finds her amusing. Towards the end, he is still exploring Hemlata and if there is any attraction between them, it is strictly the reader’s imagination, stoked by an anonymous cloud.
As for Bhagaban, he does win an election and become an MLA, but does he actually get to do all that he wants to for the Cloud People from Cloud Mountain? Or will they let him do what’s good for them? Do they want him to? I mean, if you are a tribal, what are the chances of you accepting the Company’s offer to give up your ancestral land and all that you know, uproot yourself, go elsewhere far away, eat better, work less, explore new worlds and possibly lead a more comfortable life? Choudhury tells us that the tribals seemed to like the idea of engineers settling amongst them and speaking in Hindi, though none of them condescended to talk to the Cloud People.
Choudhury’s world is a sensitive but cloudy one, filled with interesting people, who discover more and more about themselves as they get on with life, making up stuff as they move on, possibly not much different from Choudhury’s journey as a blogger, a journalist and novelist and an explorer. The lyrical prose interspersed with references to Mumbai suburbs, good whiskeys and other useful stuff, gives one the feeling that the story is moving rather slowly, when one suddenly realises with a start that one has travelled further and faster than one wanted to. I can't guarantee that Clouds will win the Booker Prize this year, but I seriously recommend that you read it nevertheless.
In the past, I have reviewed Arzee the Dwarf and A Travellers' Literary Companion, a compilation of translated stories from all over India edited by Choudhury.