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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Last Burden

Upamanyu Chatterjee

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Title: The Last Burden
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993
Length: 303 pages
Availability: The Last Burden is out of print in the US and UK
  • The Last Burden is in print in India, but not in the US or UK

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Our Assessment:

A- : accomplished, very well written novel of an Indian family

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Far East. Econ. Rev. B- 27/1/1994 Theresa Munford
The Guardian D+ 17/8/1993 James Wood
TLS . 13/8/1993 Amit Chaudhuri

  Review Consensus:

  Like some aspects of it, but also find it grim and the language overblown

  From the Reviews:
  • "The three generations that Upamanyu Chatterjee draws under one roof in this uncomfortable portrait of an urban Indian household seem to be bound to each other as much by bile as by blood. (...) The only silence is that of a sulk. Perhaps that is why the rare glimmers of tenderness, even of affection, are all the more poignant (.....) Despite the author's wit and humorous prose, the nastiness of it all soon begins to wear. The reader may close the book with the same sense of relief as slamming the door behind a house full of quarrelsome, rowdy acquaintances." - Theresa Munford, Far Eastern Economic Review

  • "This family speak to each other in a crazy and impossible language, something between a parody of Indian English and a parody of Chatterjee's own inflamed prose. How one responds to this speech will determine what one thinks of the novel. Often, it is unbearable (.....) Chatterjee's prose is a mad powder of different registers; alas, too often, his sentences flake into nothing. (...) We want to feel for sick Urmila, for the lost and rebellious Jamun, but Chatterjee sinks them so deeply in his language that they die. (...) (A) puzzle and a disappointment." - James Wood, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       And now for something completely different: wedged in between the two Agastya Sen novels, English, August (see our review) and The Mammaries of the Welfare State (see our review), Upamanyu Chatterjee penned this novel. Agastya Sen's travails readily make for satire, the not so great and not so grand Welfare State offering a wealth of material. The Last Burden is a more sombre and sober book, smaller in ambit, different in its ambitions.
       Although the first chapter is titled "August", the reference is only to the month, not Agastya's nickname. It is a different cast of characters here, a contemporary Indian family. Urmila, the mother has been taken ill: she is, as the novel begins, perhaps on her deathbed. The family comes together to see her through these days, lingering then as she slowly recovers. Jamun, the son at the centre of the novel, takes a few days to arrive. Already there are his older brother Burfi (with foreign wife Joyce and their sons, Doom and Pista) and his father, Shyamanand.
       It is not a happy family reunion. It is, in fact, not a happy family. Even Urmila recognizes that she and Shyamanand "were so inconsonant"; nevertheless they got married. Shyamanand is also crippled -- emotionally and, after a stroke that limits his movements, physically. Burfi is a somewhat happy-go-lucky type fellow, and neither he nor Jamun has lived up to their parents expectations. Burfi's marriage is no longer a particularly happy one. Jamun has yet to really settle down.
       Even as a teenager Jamun "feels for his parents a love that is only the tenderness of remorse, just a sorrow, a shame at their unhappiness." The family gets by, but much that is familial and warm is missing. As Jamun eventually learns, there are also things about his parents that he was unaware of.
       Cultures clash too. The children have moved away. Modern India, with looser ties of obligation and family, causes additional strains. There is also Joyce's insistence on raising their sons Catholic. And money problems are brought to the fore by the medical bills.
       The novel focusses on the family's time together dealing with Urmila's illness, with Jamun's memories of the past, childhood and youth, rounding out the picture. He dreams and hallucinates -- "he has visioned a good many hideous things" -- but most of what he sees is starkly real.
       Among the memories dealt with at length are those concerning a secondary figure, Jamun's Aya, who took care of him when he was young. Much loved, he quickly outgrew her, but she remained in the household, eventually getting ill and becoming a burden which the family seeks to unload. While there are scenes of some humanity in how they deal with her, the family does simply want to discard her -- and eventually manages to do so. Urmila does tend to her for a while, but is looked down upon for doing so. As elsewhere in the household, one finds some compassion, and a little love, but mostly simply a sense of duty -- stronger for members of the family, weaker for mere servants.
       There is little true communication in the household. Urmila and Shyamanand seem to have lived with only a few pat expressions that they would exchange; beyond these "squats the silence". They have long not slept together, indeed there is little intimacy between them. As a child Jamun had no idea that it was unusual that parents should not share a bed.
       Jamun has not found a truly happy relationship. His early love Kasturi remains a friend -- occasionally a very close one indeed-- , but is married. Burfi's marriage barely holds together. Throughout the novel there is a surprising amount of divorce, adultery, and similar failures. (Even the book's dedication rings fatalistically melancholy: "for Anne -- while the going is good".)
       The Last Burden is a book about parents -- about coming to terms with them. "The anger of parents is never anger", Urmila tells Jamun. He understands, but it does not make it easier to deal with them. The book suggests that there is some growth here, that Jamun does begin to come to terms with his parents and also begins to find his own place in the world (for a variety of reasons, including unexpectedly becoming a father himself), but The Last Burden is not meant as an uplifting tale. Chatterjee remains a realist -- and occasionally the realism can appear brutal.
       The writing is very solid throughout the book. There is some humour, but little of the lightness found in much of English, August. But Chatterjee strikes the proper tone throughout: it is both assured and accomplished -- more so than in either of the Agastya Sen novels (and with a more solid narrative frame to it as well). Throughout, the scenes and memories, the fights (about trivial matters), and the descriptions of the characters (even down to the mimicry of the young children, the pompous doctors, and the servants), are all very well done, fitting together to make the whole greater even than the fine parts.
       Many of his flourishes are particularly good, woven in throughout, rarely simply authorial preening (as one finds, for example, in much of Salman Rushdie's work). Chatterjee has a good ear, and he can get away with most of his playful, musical use of language: on rain-pelted, flooding streets, for example, he writes that "auto-rickshaws continue to squirm through, like flitting lifers ducking flak." Sometimes his choice of words isn't quite right, but he still puts together marvelous sentences and descriptions throughout the novel. Even his most stilted passages have their charms:

The fan groans more torpidly and sonorously. Its axial disc, like a giant, waxen carrom striker with three fine, concentric, silvery hoops, and its circumambient chalky blur, which is like a whitish gramophone record when at superspeed, decelerates to a three-limbed figure cartwheeling at the same spot. The brims of the arms of the fan are maculated with measureless fly droppings.
       The characters -- especially Jamun and his parents -- are also particularly well presented. They are not particularly sympathetic, but the reader comes to understand and feel for them.

       The Last Burden was, apparently, not a great success. An unexpected follow-up to English, August, it perhaps did not meet readers' expectations. In India one imagines that this portrayal of domestic life might also have been seen as too dark (and too real), not at all how family life should be. Abroad -- well, perhaps it was also not the picture of India readers hoped for. It is a shame: The Last Burden is a very good book. It does not have the humour or light touch of English, August, but it has more depth and solidity, and it is very well written. Certainly worthwhile, certainly recommended.

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The Last Burden: Reviews: Upamanyu Chatterjee: Other books by Upamanyu Chatterjee under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Indian author Upamanyu Chatterjee was born in 1959. He has written several novels, and has worked for the Indian Administrative Service since 1983.

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