The Man Who Would Not See came to my attention when it was longlisted for this year’s Ockham Book awards, here in New Zealand.
I was intrigued by the title which, to me, suggested wilful blindness and conflict. I wanted to know more about this man; what it was he wouldn’t see, and who it was that wanted him to see things their way.
The novel opens with two brothers, Abhay and Ashim, lost in the neighbourhood near the Howrah Railway Station, in Calcutta. They are missing overnight. The descriptions are vivid; the mounting anxiety of Abhay, the younger of the two, palpable. Rajorshi Chakrabort captures the dynamic between the two boys well. This won’t end well, I think to myself, as I read through eyes squinty with worry for the boys.
The consequences are swift and severe, but not as dire as I thought they might be.
Instead of being kidnapped or mugged, or eaten by rats, all which I thought were perfectly likely outcomes, the children survive the night in an abandoned factory and find their way back to their father. But then, their father and Abhay’s mother, Ashim’s step-mother, deliver swift and severe punishment. Both Ashim and his sister are sent to live with their paternal grandmother.
Fast forward more than thirty years and Abhay, a writer, lives in Wellington New Zealand with his Kiwi born wife, Lena, and daughter. Abhay and Lena tell the story of Abhay’s reconnection with his half-brother, Ashim.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of anticipating a visit from overseas of a much loved family member or friend might relate to the email Abhay sends to his brother. It is four typed pages of over-eager instructions:
First of all, do make your own specific list of whatever else you need to carry: these are just the obvious essentials. Passports, return ticket printouts, travel insurance printouts, credit and ATM cards, dollars and rupees, any essential medicines you might need on the journey, our Wellington address and phone number for the landing card, and of course a pen to fill in forms at either end of the flight … (pp31-32)
I was squirming before I reached the end of this first paragraph. Was Ashim incapable of thinking for himself? I wondered. Or was Abhay over excited? Which ever, he was trying way too hard. That email would have been enough to put me right off the whole idea. But not Ashim. Oh, no. He is highly motivated to make this trip. For his own reasons. And high on the list the reader soon realises is revenge.
It seems Ashim wants to make Abhay suffer for having been the one more loved, the one allowed to stay with their father, and the one gifted with opportunities denied to him.
The eagerness of Abhay to show his brother and niece the sights as well as an insight into his New Zealand life, is all so very familiar. I’ve felt that. Done that. Been gifted the same when I’ve visited friends and family overseas.
But soon the barbed comments from Ashim begin. They become increasingly critical. Ashim on Abhay’s regular tennis game at Makara where the court happens to be within sight of a cemetery:
Maybe that’s one of your talents … that you can always ignore the cemetery right beside where you are playing. (p52)
Ouch! Abhay accepts the criticism, takes it on board, begins to believe this is a personal failing.
While Abhay gets mired in self-blame, Lena, on the whole is refreshingly frank and incisive.
Eleven more days, I kept telling myself. Eleven days, and then they couldn’t return until we decided to sponsor them again. Picturing the distance from Hazaribagh, as well as that thought—that Ashim couldn’t ever just spring a visit on us—helped me stay on the rails. (p80)
Ashim takes advantage of his brother’s generosity by manipulating his friends against him and interfering in his marriage. Abhay spirals into rumination and self-doubt while he repeatedly gives his brother the benefit of the doubt. Long before the end of the novel I’m with his wife, Lena, wishing Abhay would just bring the holiday to an early end. But Abhay only tries harder. On a search for understanding, and leaving Lena and his daughter in New Zealand, he travels to Hazaribagh, India. Seeking what, exactly? Understanding? Forgiveness? Redemption? Or, perhaps, only more material for his latest project?
By the end of the novel, who it is who would not see is not as clear as it seems at the beginning.
Psychological fiction is a genre which generally I enjoy. But for me, in places, The Man Who Would Not See was like getting stuck in a loop of rumination and explanation.
Curiously, as I’ve been gathering my thoughts about this book I’ve been asking myself, as I puzzle over some of the motivations and behaviours of key characters, what have I missed? What haven’t I seen?
Rajorshi Chakraborti is a New Zealand author who was born in Calcutta and now lives in Wellington with his Kiwi wife and their daughter. The Man Who Would Not See is his fifth novel.
Listen to Rajorshi Chakraborti on Bookmarks with Jesse Mulligan
And here is a review from The Listener
My brother and I are with our dad at Howrah station to meet our grandmother off the train, but have learnt upon getting here that it’s running two hours late. (p9)
The Man Who Would Not See by Rajorshi Chakraborti (2018) Penguin Books.
Categories: On Books