Crafting a young writer

Second take

I like to think of Siddharth Chowdhury’s Day Scholar as R K Narayan meets Upamanyu Chatterjee; The Bachelor of Arts meets English, August. When a college novel feels witty and honest, it seems to be lacking style and literary merit. When it has literary depth, it is never as honest or witty as it should be. The triumph of Day Scholar is that it is all of these things. 

Chowdhury’s novel actually belongs to an even smaller, funnier tradition within the genre: the hostel novel. Shokeen Niwas, the hostel where the young hero stays, is the set-piece of the novel rather than the campus. 

Hriday Thakur, 17 (just graduated from Patna Commerce College) has moved to Delhi where he has got a seat at Zakir Husain to study BA English, Honours. He chooses a shady hostel off campus called Shokeen Niwas, full of tough, cracked characters and philistines. Strangely, this seems to suit Hriday well. 

Though the residents of Shokeen Niwas are not what Hriday bargained for when he left Patna to make it in Delhi, he is glad to be here for another reason: Hriday wants to be a writer, and amidst the shady goings-on at Shokeen Niwas, he wakes up early each morning to write stories featuring the hostel. “I loved the wanton amorality of the place. It’s chanciness, its far remove from respectability. I wanted to be a writer. I had finally found my material, if not my voice.” “The writer and his world is one of my abiding themes,” Chowdhury told me. 

“I come back to it again and again. While Patna Roughcut is more about the provincial upper classes, Day Scholar is about the provincial middle class and lower middle class. The banal but corrosive everyday prejudice of urban Indian life is one of the themes of the novel and which I felt had not been brought out in the Indian English novels earlier. The other theme that runs through Hriday’s narrative is, of course, how to be good in a world where it is so easy and appropriate to be bad.”

The violent and sexually-charged Delhi hostel chapters are interspersed with charming accounts of the writer-hero and his ‘fellow gallants’ of Patna’s Kadam Kuan, recounting the rituals of school ending and college beginning. I can think of only a few Indian authors who have used a real city and one of its actual neighbourhoods as fellow characters, or as Chowdhury would say, ‘fellow gallants’ with as much vivid recall, consistency and fondness. Patna and Kadam Kuan (a tough Behari-Bengali neighbourhood) always form part of the action and background in his fiction. (His first book, Disksha at St Martins, is fetchingly dedicated to Patna).

“By staying faithful to the Kadam Kuan neighbourhood,” observes Amitava Kumar, “Chowdhury manages to create an enduring portrait of a very specific community, the Bengali in Bihar.” 

The novel’s background is equally gritty with references to the Mandal agitations, riots, caste conflicts and even a shadow of the Partition. The students in the story, whether in Patna or Delhi, are acutely conscious of caste, community and class. They are full of prejudices. Jishnu da, the de facto leader of the rowdy hostel, is quick to express his distrust and distaste for dark complexioned people.

In an aside, Hriday remarks, “This was fairly rich coming from someone like Jishnu da, himself what we in Patna routinely called an IAS, Invisible After Sunset.” Jishnu da was also fond of saying, “I do not like Bengalis. They think too much. You cannot trust such people.” 

And exchanges between students display a casual snobbishness. Hriday notes that Jishnu’s room is filled with civil service guides, public administration textbooks. “For Jishnu da, like many other students in Delhi, whether in DU, Jamia or JNU, the white government Ambassador car with the red beacon light on top and all sirens blaring, was the ultimate achievement.” 

Though not a resident, associated to the hostel is another Bihari gallant, Satyabrat Ojha, a Mandal campaigner. His Mandal hero status has allowed him to stay on at the University running a business — supplying meals to students. For years now, he has been working on an epic Sanskrit novel called Love in the Time of Mandal.

It is the tough, crude and unpredictable environment of Shokeen Niwas, full of danger and temptation, that will teach Hriday to negotiate adolescence and make a tough-minded writer out of him. 

“In Shokeen Niwas, I would usually get up quite early in the morning and work on my stories. I would set the alarm for 5 am and try to write for two hours before it was time to get ready for college. I would write on ruled A4 size spiral bound notebooks with pencil, so that I could erase and make new connections... I always wrote on the recto side so that on the verso I could write insertions and ideas for the next draft... I would sharpen three Nataraj pencils nestling in the chipped coffee cup, wherein I kept my pens and pencils, my writing tools.”

Chowdhury doesn’t make a big deal of this theme of the hero as reader-writer or how reading and writing becomes his salvation. But we sense that it is not only a cleansing act for Hriday, but an affirming one as well, giving him identity, purpose and joy. 

And though reading and writing will not keep him pure, return his innocence or ensure that he remains untouched by Shokeen Niwas, reading will keep him from totally identifying with this world, and writing will sustain him and lift him out of it.

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