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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

A Man of Great Characters

Siddharth Chowdhury makes a comeback with a collection of short stories that capture the essence of middle-class life in hypermasculine cultures.

Written by Amrita Dutta | Updated: April 18, 2015 3:52:47 am
Book review A few of the stories fall short. ‘Autobiography’ has some fine lines strung together only by a timetable and whimsy.

Book: The Patna Manual of Style

Author: Siddharth Chowdhury

Publisher: Aleph

Pages: 152

Price: Rs 250

If you have followed Hriday Thakur’s journey so far, from Kadam Kuan in Patna to Delhi University and its bad-assed gang of men, you are bound to pick this slim book up. Unlike Day Scholar, Siddharth Chowdhury’s last novella, it will not disappoint.

In the opening story, ‘The Importer of Blondes’, the scene has shifted from Shokeen Niwas, North Campus, where arguments are too often settled by a slash of the astura, to Connaught Place in December, which is “like Paris in springtime”. “Not that I have ever been to Paris,” informs Hriday the narrator, “…only watched it from afar, in countless Truffaut and Godard movies.” The great thing about the characters in Chowdhury’s books is that cinema and literature are as real to them as their skin, the texture of their lives made up of Turgenev and Richard Yates as much as streetside brawls and lack of jobs. Hriday has just quit his job at a soft-porn magazine and bumped into an old friend from Patna. They do what self-respecting men in Delhi once did when they had tales to share: dive into the smoke-filled Volga restaurant. Jishnu da, who we have met earlier in Day Scholar, is the eponymous trader of white goods. He supplies women from the fragments of the erstwhile Soviet Union to India and casts them in X-rated films like Patel Rape and Dirty Be Harry (these being the titles fit to print): “the whole diaspora experience. Indian men doing blonde girls.” Like many Indian violent men, he has fallen in love with a virginal woman. As he reminds Hriday, “You should write about me. I am quite a character.”

Chowdhury’s talent, as we saw in Patna Roughcut, is in the writing of such characters, men who have stepped beyond the line of respectability, who have a healthy appetite for smashed knees and feral sex. But the note of noir that this story strikes is exceptional. There is something mellow about this bunch of interlinked stories that follow Hriday and the people in his life. Their arc hints at a ripening of life, and a rapprochement reached with its disappointments. In ‘Death of a Proofreader’, Hriday watches his colleague and friend Samuel Crown, the legend of Ansari Road, Delhi’s publishing district, and “the utter loneliness of (Crown’s) life would strike him like a hammer. Hriday would realise that family and friends were more important than the artistic life he was striving for.”

While it begins at Crown’s funeral, the story is a masterful portrait of the life of this most exceptional of minor characters. A man whose extra-large coat pockets carried books and an addha of Bagpiper Gold, who once read the first proofs of A Suitable Boy, all 1,500 pages of it, in three weeks, and who calls The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Copy-editing his Crown jewels. His weakness was his drink, and two glasses down, he “would get bold-italic in my happiness.” This story alone is worth the entire collection.

A few of the stories fall short. ‘Autobiography’ has some fine lines strung together only by a timetable and whimsy.

‘Goat-Getting’’s tiresome wordplay will get your goat. But this is a collection that lives up to the promise of Patna Roughcut. Chowdhury’s has always been an original voice in Indian English fiction. He is attuned to the particularities of place and middle-class life, especially of the way men enact their selves in hypermasculine cultures. His language, always sharp and sardonic, turns into something richer here, infused with loss and time.

There is also a movement towards interiority from the neighbourhood and its corners, signalled by several images of domestic spaces. Hriday too is a published writer now. He is also a married man, though not to the great love of his life, Charulata. Even though he agreed to an arranged marriage, he is secure in its “everyday voluptuousness”. ‘Tipple Cake’ is a wonderful portrait of this warm domesticity but also the heartache that ripples under. And in its narrator, Hriday’s wife Chitrangada, lies great promise. Now, if only Siddharth Chowdhury would hurry up and write his next.

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