It feels as if spring has gone on strike, enabling winter to continue until December. The mercury is sluggish and the wind is fierce, and I have been stuck at home all week with three kids suffering from viruses usually confined to the coldest months of the year. But, fortunately, a little part of me has sensed the heat of the Indian sun and smelt the heady, sensual smells of the streets of Calcutta, through Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song.
As the children’s illnesses have kept us inside, I have had the chance to immerse myself in the book, and it has been a warm and evocative treat.
Freedom Song takes the reader inside an extended family in Calcutta, showing snippets of everyday life. The family spans the ages, from the elderly to those whose marriages were under negotiation. Characters walk through the hazy, hectic streets together, women prepare fragrant curries and sisters gossip about their relatives’ marriage prospects.
However, it also hints at broader issues, such as arranged marriage, Communisim, the relationship between government and business and Muslim/Hindu relations. As in reality, politics is interwoven with family life, particularly for a young man whose marriage planning is jeopardized by his interest in the Communist party. Rather than feeling as meaty as these issues would suggest, Freedom Song is light and delicate, with only a sense of suggestion carrying these themes, rather than the offering of any absolutes. Issues are entwined in the characters’ lives, insinuating themselves rather than taking over the narrative.
Even the personalities of the family, including the housewife who is irritated that the Muslim call to prayer wakes her up in the morning, are suggested, then skipped over, to be returned to in a subtle, but revealing moment. Rather than seeming to be fully-formed characters, they are like shadows, enigmatic and hard to hold onto.
Freedom Song is a slow-burning novel, with beautiful, evocative language which enables the reader to experience an intimate slice of life in Calcutta.