“The human self has come before religion, nations and boundaries—what is the self?” This is the profound quest that the protagonist in Devdan Chaudhuri’s ‘Anatomy of Life’ has embarked upon. Pratiti Ganatra reviews his debut novel.
Calcutta boy Devdan Chaudhuri’s debut novel was one of the six unpublished works chosen for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013. The novel follows the life of an unnamed male protagonist, who is referred to as “the poet”, from when he turns 16, moves to a new city and begins to lead a new life with his recently divorced mother. At the very outset, the plot seems simple: the linear growth of a young adult into a more mature individual who has to understand the responsibilities of life. But this apparent simplicity conceals many complexities.
The ‘Anatomy of Life’ is divided into six chapters—titled Seasons, Myriad Void, Circles and Spheres, Centre and Periphery, Balance, and The Wheel—and it is from these six themes that the story of the poet’s quest for self discovery takes cues and moves forward. The style of narration is such that although it is observant, it is relentless in asking those fundamental questions that we have all pondered over but probably never got around to answering.
A slightly unique aspect of the novel are the characters—each unnamed, each different from the other, each having an interesting relationship with the protagonist. There’s the “sweetheart”, an acquaintance of the poet who falls in love with him during their second year of college, eventually becoming his muse:
I could feel your love
in your searching eyes,
bent towards the earth
like flowers in the rain,
struggling to look up
Though the sweetheart is all the poet’s heart desires, his brain and soul yearn for something more. That’s where the “virgin” comes in, to satisfy his weakness for intelligence. “Attachment to someone is natural,” he says at one point, “but if that leads to an obsession, then it becomes enslavement.”
This rings true in the way all the characters in the novel, like the “joker”, the “senior”, the “beautiful”, seem like a means through which the poet is slowly moving towards his ultimate goal of realising the self. It seems like they are all just tools to aid him in this all-important journey towards nirvana.
The author is also successful in creating some very strong imagery, be it the girl wearing the orange shade of lipstick, lying naked in a dingy old building, or the reflective boat ride at sunset on the Kashi river, or the maroon-coloured Tibetan incense being burned at strategic corners of the house and its smell wafting through the poet’s entire apartment.
“But sadly, time doesn’t have a weak memory. Deep grievances persist as shadows, old issues become the swords of new battles. And the cycle of a good spell and then the unbearable, continues forever, without coming to an end.”
The cycle that the author mentions is the poet’s constant quest to discover the inner hidden self. He tries to do that through his travels, through his poetry, and through his research and work as a journalist. One article that he writes explores the void in great depth, and you realise how much he has advanced and moved forward psychologically. His constant tussle between the centre and the periphery keeps you interested throughout.
Overall, if one looks close enough, each reader will find some sort of connection with the trials and tribulations of the protagonist—we are all struggling, after all, to adjust in this fast-paced urban landscape—and this works in the book’s favour. It might seem at times that the pace has slowed a little, but on the whole it is a book that some would love to go back to now and again just for the sense that their problems are not isolated and one-of-a-kind. “All great truths only occur in solitude, in the twilight moments of calm and reflection,” Chaudhuri writes. Perhaps this is the sort of reflection we all need from time to time.