In Day Scholar, Siddharth Chowdhury writes once again with honesty and precision about young people.
By Pradeep Sebastian
I dling away in a small, local bookstore a few weeks ago, I was casting about for something I could read with real pleasure. One book that had been looking at me, face-out, was Day Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury. It's not just the lovely cover design that beckoned but its economy: a slim, elegant Picador hardback of 160 pages. I was already familiar with the first chapter of this book excerpted in the anthology about school stories, Recess, where a few Delhi university students, including the story's narrator, Hriday Thakur, watch through a gap in the door their thuggish landlord indulging in anal sex with his married mistress. The scene is described with enough matter of fact graphicness to earn your respect at once for an Indian author willing to write with such brutal frankness.
You know at once he isn't kidding about; that this won't be another sentimental, cute or nostalgic account of youth. The profane, dark and embarrassingly comic atmosphere immediately thrusts these students into the sleaze of the adult world. But it is the next chapter that really drew me in: a coolly understated, humorous and charming introduction to the story's writer-hero and his ‘fellow gallants' of Patna's Kadam Kuan neighbourhood, recounting the rituals of school-ending and college-beginning. Excited, I also bought Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut, and the next morning ran, more than walked, to a used bookstore I remembered having a single copy of his debut, Diksha at St.Martins.
Siddharth Chowdhury writes about young people in exactly the way I had always hoped Indian writers would, but usually never do: with precision, honesty, affection, style, an accurate ear for dialogue around the themes of friendship, love, writing, girls, cinema, sex, rock music and college life. His new novel, Day Scholar, brings all this together perfectly and beautifully. Day Scholar is a masterpiece in modern Indian fiction. The first, I'd have to say, in Indian English literature about university life, since it has no real precedent. It isn't exactly a coming of age story; neither is it just a campus novel. It's that even rarer thing: ‘the college grad-as-writer-hero' genre.
Hriday, just graduated from Patna Commerce College has joined BA (Hons) at Delhi's Zakir Husain. He has found strange digs at the Shokeen Niwas hostel whose unpredictable, crazy residents (such as the older Bihari student Jishnu da) are not what he bargained for when he left Patna to make it in Delhi. Hriday's ambition is to be a writer, and amidst the crazy goings on here, he tries to write. But perhaps the tough, vulgar and shady environment of Shokeen Niwas may just yet give him some street wisdom and make a writer out of him. He reads and writes just to keep himself sane; to clarify. Meanwhile, he also falls in love with the ardent and erotic intellectual Anjali Nalwa.
Shokeen Niwas, not the college, is the set-piece of the novel and it works because it is like all the hostels we have known, full of cracked characters and philistines, and a bookish, sensitive adolescent like Hriday has to make sense of them. If Hriday had come to a place full of intellectuals and artists, there wouldn't have been any comedy or surprise. The sticky thing about writing about things that are so close to our own growing up is to write without gushing and affectation even though that's how it actually happened. While Siddharth does his fair share of gushing in Diksha and Roughcut (‘more a Truffaut girl than a Goddard moll' kind of thing), in Day Scholar there's a fine restrain about self-referential details.
He achieves this distance by making his hero-narrator self-effacing, keeping what happens to him in the background, while building up other characters and their concerns.
The spare, stylish prose and its elegant economy is note perfect: sentence by sentence it is interesting. Nothing is wasted or thrown away: the writing is just so much, and not more. Each chapter is so carefully worked out, they feel self contained and can stand alone as satisfying short stories in their own right.
And I can't think of another Indian author who has used a city and its neighbourhood as fellow characters, or as Chowdhury would say, ‘fellow gallants' with as much vivid recall and fondness. Patna and Kadam Kuan, a ‘tough Behari-Bengali neighbourhood' always form part of the action and background in his fiction. (His first novel is fetchingly dedicated to Patna). Characters recur from previous stories (like Ritwik Ray from Patna Roughcut turning up in Day Scholar), and we find them always going down the mean streets of Kadam Kuan. From their roots here, they move away later to other neighbourhoods in Delhi. The Patna- Delhi-Patna movement is a rock and roll jig to the head-banging music of Kadam Kuan.
Hriday remembers: “Around 5.30, about three times a week on an average, Yamini Sahay, along with her elder sister Rukmini, would stroll in from Kadam Kuan for the chaat and gol-gappas sold near the market entrance. Time for the cigarettes to come out. Prajal and I would stand in front of the bookstall, light our Gold Flakes and just stare at the Sahay sisters as they tucked in massive quantities of gol-gappas. The secret perhaps of their architecturally perfect behinds. After the gol-gappas, the sisters would take a leisurely stroll around Hathwa Market and we would follow them ten paces behind, passing a Gold Flake back and forth between us.”
The nostalgic references to the things of the late 1980s and 90s are placed just right, sharply drawing a time and place without calling attention to itself: Vicky mopeds, Rajdoot/ Yezdi bikes, North Star sneakers, Competition Success guides/Brilliant Tutorials, Natraj pencils, Golden Eagle beer, Binaca toothpaste, Navy Cut cigarettes, Divya Bharathi movies, Boney M and Bata sandals.
In one of his stories, a character says he considers Ray's “Apur Sansar” the greatest love story, and it would be lovely to have Hriday return in Chowdhury's own version of his ‘Apur Sansar', grown up now, married, a published author looking for a way to understand life. I can't think of a better way to close this piece than borrowing a 1980s limerick from Day Scholar itself that Hriday, the devout writer (“I wrote and kept myself alive”) makes up about himself, and offering it here instead to its wonderful author: “ Soda, Lemon, Gingerpop, Siddharth Chowdhury Back on Top.”