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People of the book: Review of Siddharth Chowdhury’s ‘The Time of the Peacock’

No sense of a narrative or place,” sighs a daughter to herself as she recalls a couple of unfinished novels found among her late father’s things in Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Time of the Peacock. It tells us something about Chowdhury’s own priorities. His novel is finely structured through multiple points of view, and the sense of place — whether we’re in Patna or the Scottish Highlands or South Delhi — is striking.

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Patna is Chowdhury’s hometown and it shows. This rootedness gives Chowdhury the locus standi to comment on a dichotomy that unspools over this short novel: bhasha literature versus Indo-Anglian fiction, bhasha India versus metropolitan India. There is no unbridgeable chasm between the two, neither condescension nor idolatry; there’s only a certain large-heartedness, conveyed lightly, whether in John Nair’s evolving perceptions of fellow Delhiwalas or Ritwik Ray’s relationship with Ramanuj Sahi.

The Time of the Peacock is all about the meta. Writers, editors and literary agents populate its pages and trade bon mots, bits of wisdom, and a formidable array of cultural references. They orbit the world of Delhi publishing and come together for the main event: the big party thrown by John Nair — managing editor, Peacock India — to celebrate the launch of Best in Show: The Peacock Book of Indo-Anglian Fiction. When Patna’s Ritwik Ray approaches Nair with his new book, Godse Chowk, what’s an editor to do?

What’s acceptable and safe to publish in the current climate? Ought dissent to be gentle or unapologetically passionate? This insider’s take on the publishing world, its characters and their foibles, is at the same time a venue to air broader questions about politics, culture, gender, caste and language.

There’s not a huge amount of plot, and the three main characters are developed through long and largely introspective narratives that give real, believable pictures of them, their pasts and presents. But such passages can sometimes drag; the first couple of pages in particular — a rather mundane description of a drive outside Delhi — are rather dull. As people are encountered and events develop, it gets better. However, it was a bhasha compulsion to find out why anybody would be named John Nair that kept me reading.

The Time of the Peacock; Siddharth Chowdhury, Aleph, ₹499

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 5:49:55 AM |

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