Wellington-based Indian author, Rajorshi Chakraborti, is presenting his latest novel in this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. The Man Who Would Not See, a current national bestseller, tells the story of two brothers who attempt to heal their severed past.
Ever since their paths crossed in Calcutta in 1986, Abhay and his older half-brother Ashim (Dada) have been the best of the friends, along with Ashim’s sister, Aranya (Didi). While waiting with their father (Baba) for their grandmother (Thamma) at a train station in Howrah, Abhay accompanies Ashim to the latter’s old house, where he, Didi, and their mother lived before she died of cancer. What was meant to be a half-hour trip turns into a night of panic, as the boys get lost on the dark streets in making their way back to platform 14. After this apparently nightmarish episode, Baba and Ma’s punishment is final: Dada is to be sent away to boarding school in Namkum, and his sister Didi to Hazaribagh to be closer to her brother. This opening section of the novel is set in the present tense, which effectively captures the immediacy of the catalyst moments before the two brothers part ways in 1988.
Fast forward to the present day, where Ashim and his daughter Tulti come to visit Abhay for Christmas and New Year. Abhay is now a stay-at-home writer living in Wellington with his wife Lena and daughter Mira. The brothers look forward to their reunion, but the emotional gulf between remains. Mirroring that search for a piece of his past in the dim streets of Howrah, Ashim brings back memories that cause Abhay to question why he ever moved abroad in the first place.
Abhay and Lena alternately narrate the rest of the novel’s chapters in the past tense. Embedded with text messages and emails, these chapters reveal the distinct ways in which husband and wife view Ashim’s impact on their daily lives. As Lena features as the outsider looking in, I found myself sympathising with her most of all. Abhay, Ashim, and Lena limit their vision in accordance with their relation to the other person. While Abhay desires to renew his bond with his half-brother (and vice versa), Lena finds Ashim to be a bearer of past grudges, mistrust, and superstition. This observation, however, comes about through Abhay’s conversations with Lena.
I thoroughly enjoyed Chakraborti’s first-person narration and non-italicised incorporation of the Bengali language. Such techniques convey the interplay between foreignness and belonging, the core of the immigrant experience. Indian food and music not only add cultural depth but also set the scene for the brothers’ memory retrieval.
In focusing on familial pain, Chakraborti skilfully hinges his narrative on the central question: what does it mean to truly “see”? A startling question that, after reading The Man Who Would Not See, might find an answer.
Reviewed by Azariah Alfante
The Man Who Would Not See
by Rajorshi Chakraborti
Published by Penguin