Events in the present — visits to the doctor, Jamun taking Urmila on a walk to the beach, the throwing of ashes into the Ganges — are interlaced with Jamun's memories — of childhood, the death of his childhood aya, his discovery of sex, Shyamanand's stroke, and so forth. Around the central quartet are the peripheral characters: Burfi's wife Joyce and their sons Pista and Doom, Shyamanand's niece Chhana, Jamun's old lover Kasturi, and the family aya. The result is a history of the family, albeit one filtered through Jamun's often limited and unreliable perspective.
Jamun is far from omniscient, but he and Chatterjee between them carry out a mercilessly honest dissection, unconstrained by propriety or filial piety. Vulgarity isn't hidden and there's no reticence about the less savoury character traits or the more unpleasant events. The family members probe each other for weaknesses that can be exploited, fighting over every little issue, real or symbolic. The Last Burden is a saga of expectations not met, failures of communication, unresolved frustrations and other traumas. But the characters remain touchingly human and the family as a whole takes on an almost holy aspect through the glaring exposure of its failings.
Chatterjee's is a psychological study of universal scope, but one that is at the same time precisely localised. Jamun's is a lower middle class Indian family, with concomitant anxieties over money and status, ambivalence about religion — when Urmila dies, the sons and father go through Hindu mourning rituals that are largely foreign to them — and general uneasiness about their place in the world. And their setting is vividly portrayed: from the family house and its furnishings outwards.
The most striking feature of The Last Burden is Chatterjee's prose. This has a broad lexical reach and an unusual style.
"Yet Shyamanand is no rogue. He only hankers after the love of his children, and is befuddled and piqued that they plainly prefer their mother; of course, he can never grasp that she's simply a better human being, softer, more merciful. Instead the years of fosterage creepingly persuade him that the fondness between mother and sons is potent only because it's genetic, is the primal sexual bond between father and daughter, and mother and son; this conviction itself pillories him because it is he who's always yearned to sire sons, and chortled in triumph even at the birth of his grandsons. 'How'll you escape,' he whoops to Burfi, 'the bliss of manliness? So what if your wife, that dear adorer of matriliny, pants for daughters?' He'd been apprehensive of Jamun's case, jittery that a second male child would be a godsend beyond his portion."Much of the dialogue put into the mouths of his characters is "out of character", obviously filtered through Jamun's memories and reworkings.
The style does take some getting used to, but eventually one stops worrying about Chatterjee's language overpowering his novel and settles down to enjoy the ride. The expansive vocabulary and the immediacy of the language are a pleasure in their own right, as well as working to mix up intellectual and emotional responses.
The humour in The Last Burden is muted but pervasive; it is enough to take the edge off the grimness of the subject material. The unfolding of events and the revelations about characters provide plenty to keep one reading. A very different kind of family saga, Upamanyu Chatterjee's The Last Burden is an original and unusual novel, worth persevering with even if the initial impression is daunting.
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