IN FREEDOM SONG, Amit Chaudhuri's sumptuous 1998 American debut, a character remarks on how India has evolved: "When we were young, the world was made of small islands of consciousness. Miles separated one village, sometimes one house, from another...things loomed large and astonishing for us: you wouldn't understand."
Cultural changes of this magnitude also lie at the heart of A New World, Chaudhuri's fourth novel, but here the Calcutta-born author is less artful in rendering them. A significant problem is an emotionally chilly plot that Chaudhuri himself seems to wish he hadn't set in motion. Economist and university professor Joyojit Chatterjee returns from the United States to his native India in hopes that he can switch his nagging child-custody battle to Indian courts, where fatherhood trumps all other claims. Joyojit has brought with him Vikram, the boy in question, and together they spend a languid summer spooning dal, walking the damp streets, and observing how Calcutta has blossomed awkwardly since Joyojit left.
The professor's father, a retired navy admiral, shuns the open sore of his son's divorce, while Joyojit, too, is reluctant to confront his own emotions regarding the failed marriage. This muted repression, however, does little to carry the story forward. Chaudhuri's cast seems trapped in a cage of provincial customs, unaware of how arid their emotional lives have become: They talk about their feelings rather than have them.
The novel's best sections bristle at the familiar strangeness of homecomings, how time warps the size and meaning of things, and sheds light on luxuries once taken for granted. Groggy with jet lag, Joyojit retrieves "his shaving things and his and Vikram's toilet accessories, Aquafresh toothpaste, Head and Shoulders shampoo...these things gleamed the most and looked the most foreign and desirable; even the toothbrushes were different and, curving oddly, seemed to belong to the future and some fragile, opulent culture."
During the soupy summer months Joyojit and his father reach a stubborn and uneasy détente, which Chaudhuri interprets as the meeting of East and West in the Chatterjee household. Admiral Chatterjee refuses to buy a washer, even though the heavy laundry loads turn his wife into a servant. Meanwhile, Joyojit feels adrift amid Calcutta's schizophrenic rhythms, and vents his frustrations by addressing his mother with open snobbery. His meaningless trips to the bank and English bookstore validate his westernized self-importance in India, yet also highlight the looming possibility that, upon his return to America, he might inherit a new and lonely world. To the end, though, Joyojit regards a return to such a paltry existence with cool detachment--and the reader's inclination to empathize is ultimately just as remote.