I am used to Americans and their reaction to our city. They will react in either one of two ways: they will find Calcutta 'exotic' and concentrate only on their tourist pleasures; or they will be immediately horrified, recoil, and seek to forget what they have seen and not understood. Yes, yes, the American psyche is as predictable as the sterile and vulnerable American digestive system when it encounters India. (p. 131)
1977: Robert Luczak, journalist and critic, travels to Calcutta with his Anglo-Indian wife Amrita and their baby daughter Victoria in search of the poet M. Das -- declared dead in 1969, but allegedly the author of a savage, obscene poem that's recently come to light.
Luczak is not a likeable fellow. He's racist, sexist, hypocritical and selfish in the extreme. He's a caricature of the American abroad (or perhaps of the whole colonial/imperial era), impatient and intolerant and all but blind to the different beauty of India.
The poverty on the streets, the interminable bureaucracy, the heat and the humidity are only the beginning of Luczak's disenchantment. His quest for the mysterious poet leads him into Calcutta's darkest side -- an undercity where religious rituals are enacted, where something waits in the darkness, and where Luczak is forced to remember some unsavoury episodes from his own past.
And yet it all seems facile: his life changes, but his essential nature does not. Even right at the end, when he's found a kind of healing in writing a bedtime storybook (a talking cat, a fearless and precocious mouse, a gallant but lonely centaur, and a vainglorious eagle who is afraid to fly. It is a story about courage and friendship and small quests to interesting places (p. 311)) there's a sense that he's just papering over the cracks, trying to block out the horror and violence of the real world.
On reflection, I wonder if there's a layer of subtlety that I missed on first reading: a friend remarked that Kali's the only god apparent in the story, but I wonder if some of the other characters are more than they seem -- the mysterious not-niece, the various guides ... Amrita, who saw herself as a ghost when she was seven and was happy, after that, to leave India behind.
This is Simmons' first novel, and I'm glad I became familiar with his later work first: I wasn't impressed by Song of Kali. It feels, sometimes, as though the author's missed the target -- I was hooked by Amrita's thoughts on different realities framed in terms of mathematical models, but that's never really picked up. And sometimes it feels all too grounded in personal experience, as though written by someone who'd been to India and had a bad trip (in one way or another) and was trying to exorcise it.