Ashim Choudhury tells BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA about his debut novel, and the long, arduous road to its publication
One of the introductory quotes to Ashim Choudhury’s debut novel The Sergeant’s Son (Rupa) is taken from William Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode”, which contains the poet’s best remembered lines - “The Child is the father of the Man”. Simply put, it conveys the poet’s belief that a child’s way of viewing the world carries its trace into manhood and is worth preserving.
“The Sergeant’s Son” is essentially a novel about childhood. It tells the story of the Biswases — Samar and Basanti and their four sons. Samar Biswas is an employee in the Air Force, who hasn’t quite lived up to his wife’s, or his own, expectations of his career, moving from one posting to another without any real material advancement. He is predictably bitter, and often violent towards his wife and children. Kalu, the third son, is the narrator’s focus, and the family’s middle class trials, tribulations, and simple pleasures are often seen through his eyes.
The book is divided into two parts – Bombay and Allahabad, corresponding to his father’s posting in these cities — and the over forty chapters therein record moments of his life as also aspects of his family, friends, neighbours and neighbourhood. What emerges is a portrait of a child, on the throes of manhood, caught in the unfair transaction between his dreams of becoming an artist and his father’s desire to mould him in his own image, as an officer in the Air Force.
Like Kalu, Choudhury joined the Air Force reluctantly. He dreamt of being an artist, and still does. The novel is a semi-autobiographical account, drawn from his own days in Bombay and Allahabad. The idea for the book came during his Air Force training in Bangalore in 1977. “It was a very crowded place but I felt very lonely. I used to spend a lot of time in the library and it was there that I read Dom Moraes’ My Son’s Father. After finishing it, I thought I could also write,” he says.
But he didn’t, not until 1994 anyway, when he was working with the United Nations Development Programmme (the book wouldn’t have happened without Peter Godwin, his English boss, who allowed him to carry home his office laptop, he writes). He finished the book in two years, and even though publishers expressed interest, nothing came of it. The manuscript reached his present publishers (for the second time) in 2011, and was selected for publication. The period in between could have been punishing, but the author gives credit to Shashi Tharoor, whose comments and suggestions on the book instilled confidence in him.
Although art remains his first love, he rues not having done much with it.
“Although I am not very prolific, I hope to have a few solo exhibitions of my landscapes,” he says.
Interestingly, Choudhury has also been a cartoonist during his career as a journalist in Delhi.
At the moment, he is working on a sequel to “The Sergeant’s Son” and a collection of short stories.
He also hopes to get the novel translated into other languages, so that ordinary readers (those like his protagonist) can read and find resonances in their own life. “I wish I had written it in Hindi,” he says.