Malay Chatterjee’s ‘The Drunk Bird Chronicles’ is a strange book. Allegro Armstrong Braganza, the eponymous narrator literally gives the reader a bird’s eye view of a sprawling family saga spanning five generations and hundred years across at least three continents, featuring the oddest medley of colourful characters. The great white raven who is determinedly immortal was originally the friend and companion of Gareth Armstrong an inventor and brothel – owner turned missionary who leaves vice laden Victorian England for India, his beautiful daughter, Rachel in tow. Later, Allegro, becomes the guardian, friend and advisor of the many descendants of the Braganzas, a Goan family Rachel has married into.
Allegro is the anchor, and only constant in the lives of the assorted offspring and the folks who will impact their lives. Chatterjee is a spiffy storyteller and despite stiff competition offered by smartphones, Netflix, etc. manages to keep the reader thoroughly engrossed and entranced by the lives and fortunes of his vast array of characters. It is nothing short of a miracle in this day and age, when a book commands one’s sole attention given our willingness to be distracted by all and sundry.
It is hard not to be charmed by a narrator who insists on being drunk most of the time while also willing to share the benefit of his wisdom, experience and especially the sharp edge of his tongue. Allegro guides the reader across familiar pages of history and through the ups and downs of the tempestuous lives of the Armstrong – Braganza family. There is Emilio, the talented piano tuner and Rachel’s husband who is made to pay the devil’s due of four stitches in the arse to keep his tryst with an otherwise favourable destiny; Orlando and Blotto, the twins whose libidos threaten to derail their lives; Verna the nag, a Maharani who has been cast aside but continues to lord over all in her shrinking domain; the unfortunate maid, Marcelena who dares to dream of a better life; Marco the cop with the nebulous past; fiercely independent Laila who chooses to live and love on her own terms; Julio, whose life is marked by sordid deeds and beautiful art, brilliant Bella who studies to be a translator in Portugal and Maria, the dancer and struggling artiste.
There is wit, irreverence and compassion aplenty for the travails of these characters even as skeletons tumble out of the closet and tragedy as well as triumph wait around corners as these individuals trundle pell-mell across the landscape of their lives, reckless and filled with boundless ambition, hope, lust, longing and avarice. Even traditionally taboo topics such as incest, the question of consent when individuals are under the influence, the responsibility of a mother towards her child, sodomizing clergy, suicide, gang rape, are dealt with a surprisingly deft and light touch that nevertheless does not rob any of these touchy subjects of depth nor is any of it insensitive.
Instead by laying bare the secrets of so many lives lived so richly, fully and so replete with mistakes that are every bit as hilarious as they are heart-breaking, Chatterjee succeeds in spinning a thought – provoking saga that engages on many levels and leaves the reader thoroughly enchanted and asking for more when the last page has been savoured and turned.
This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.