Saturday, April 11, 2015

Bihari Hamlets And Don Quixotes

This appeared in the March 9, 2015 issue of India Today.

In one of the stories from Siddharth Chowdhury’s new collection, The Patna Manual of Style, the narrator settles down for a train journey, looking forward to re-reading Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches: “a book which always calms me down and makes me feel more generously disposed towards humanity in general”.  In a famous essay written in 1860, the Russian writer mused on two types of characters in fiction, the Hamlets and the Don Quixotes. The first is eaten away by self-reflection, while the second is purposeful and full of belief in reaching his self-proclaimed aims. Both types of characters can be found in Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style; the former comes across as a fictional stand-in for the author himself, while the striking figures he encounters represent the latter.

Readers of Chowdhury’s earlier work will find these interlinked tales comfortingly familiar. Many characters and concerns from Patna Roughcut and Day Scholar appear here too, making The Patna Manual of Style an organic extension. This collection, then, largely deals with the continuing fortunes of the twenty-something Hriday Thakur as he navigates jobs and writing projects in New Delhi. Along the way, he charts a course through a loose network of friends, family and acquaintances of varying castes and affiliations, almost all of them with a Bihar connection.

Among the more pleasing aspects of The Patna Manual of Style is its distinctive tone of voice. This, for the large part, is a mixture of the knowing and the naïve, of the sardonic and the nostalgic, of Bihari comportment and new-wave cinema – all of which sounds like it can’t possibly hang together, but somehow does. (In the first few pages, for example, Hriday strikes a noir pose in Connaught Place by buttoning up his ancient herringbone, “patched up at the elbows and cuffs with scuffed tan leather” and lighting “a fresh Gold Flake from the dwindling embers of the previous one”; after a visit to the barber, he thinks that “with the beard now gone and a thick moustache in place I looked more grown-up and purposeful, which I felt was a good thing”; thus fortified, he looks forward to devouring a thali called the Patna Large at Yadavji Litti Centre in one of the bylanes leading to the train station.)

Many stories involve Hriday coming across, or hearing news of, a character from his past – Quixotes to his Hamlet – with the narrative filling in the blanks between then and now. Thus, Jishnu-da, a former university associate, tells him about how he’s now transformed into an “importer of blondes”, by which he means a supplier of Russian dancers for shows, weddings and the like, and of the dangers of mixing heart and head. At the start of another detail-laden and character-filled story, Hriday attends the funeral of one Samuel Aldington Macaulay Crown, “the best proofreader in all of Ansari Road”, and we’re then supplied with details of Hriday’s initial encounters with him, as well as his potted career. Yet another story deals with Hriday’s wife telling him of the suspected affair of one of his old flames, a lever for Hriday to recall past times.

Perhaps the most satisfying story here is told from the point of view of Hriday’s wife, Chitrangada, a rumination that dwells on her gradual acceptance into his circle of friends. More specifically, it deals with the consequences of a drunken lunch with them, during which she first meets the beauteous Charulata Roy, whom Hriday was ealier almost married to. The shift in focus from Hriday to Chitrangada is pulled off efficiently and provides a welcome and needed shift in perspective.

Many other stories, however, are no more than slight character sketches.  There’s the gently self-mocking tale of writer named Siddharth Chowdhury, who has “published a novel no one has actually read”: a postmodern pirouette that sits a trifle uneasily with the rest, especially since this story is little more than a vignette.  Another such vignette brings us the first-person musings of another writer, the daughter of an eminent littérateur, who riffs on people "getting her goat" as an euphemism for sex (that's more corny than horny, if you'll pardon the expression).

To return to Turgenev, it was of his A Sportsman’s Sketches itself that he somewhat self-deprecatingly wrote: “Much has come out pale and scrappy, much is only just hinted at, some of it's not right, oversalted or undercooked – but there are other notes pitched exactly right and not out of tune, and it is these notes that will save the whole book.” One could say much the same of Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style.

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