College capsule

Books such as Narayan’s Swami and Friends, Naipaul’s Miguel Street, Junot Diaz’s Drown, are all composed of stand alone pieces that have the compactness and intensity of short stories, but that also work together to create the immersion and sustained engagement of novels. Siddharth Chowdhury’s second and third books, Patna Roughcut and Day Scholar can be seen as part of this tradition. (Chowdhury’s first book is the hard-to-find story collection Diksha at St Martin’s.) Both books are slight in extent, but resounding in effect. They share themes and settings, and a character from one might be elaborated or make a cameo in the other. They are similar in structure — novels in stories — with Patna Roughcut being the more adventurous book in terms of the locations, time-lines and voices it pulls together.

The narrator of Day Scholar is 17-year-old Hriday Thakur, who moves from Patna to study English at Delhi University. He rents a room at Shokeen Nivas, a hostel owned by a fixer and muscleman with a prodigious appetite for women and property. The students living there are complicit in the owner’s nefariousness in small ways, and Hriday, an aspiring writer, falls in with this wild and unpredictable lot believing he has found his material. But, his amoral stance leads him to an uncomfortable place, one where he can’t recognise himself, and he has to find the will and courage to extricate himself.

This plot unfolds across six stories, rich in detail and diversions: the grisly acquisition of Shokeen Nivas, Hriday’s discovery of self-respect at 15, in the middle of grovelling for a two per cent NCC grace mark, his patronage by a schoolmate and Mandal Commission immolatee turned student boss, a vignette about one of the inmates of the house who aspires to the civil services (“the national pastime of Bihar”) but is turning into a fixer, a confused and fleeting relationship with an older girl, and Hriday’s discovery of his moral compass when he sees that his inertia could have dangerous consequences for others.  
It is doubtful if Hriday could have found the space for reflection in his feverish world, had he not insisted on rising early to work on his stories. Among other things, Day Scholar is also about writing and its redemptive power.

Chowdhury’s characters might study in convent schools, listen to western music, watch European cinema, and study English literature, but the world they come from also gives them prejudices about class, caste and language. Their modernity encumbers them with an awareness of their own provinciality. They feel rooted, but at the same time possess an almost self-loathing restlessness.

Chowdhury’s prose is simple, but remarkably supple in dealing with this complex world. He has a particular knack for sharp and funny dialogue, and is not shy about using Hindi where it is effective. His choice of idiom is strikingly organic — in Patna Roughcut a building is described as being ‘Gelusil pink’, in Day Scholar a boy playing with himself is said to be ‘making baingan bharta’. One of the student henchmen at Shokeen Nivas is an ‘emaciated five-feet-five-inches-tall rangbaz in a Sandow ganji of indeterminate colour and tweety pie bermudas’. Consider how much is communicated about the narrator by the opening lines of a chapter in Patna Roughcut: “Fall 1990. I am back in Patna now. Except there is no ‘fall’ in Patna ever.”

Like the ‘compromisers’ who mediate between student gangs in Day Scholar, Chowdhury tells a refractory English language and a messy and unattenuated Indian reality, ‘shake hands karo’. That makes his, one of the most exciting Indian voices, writing in English, today.


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