Tribute to Patna

Short stories that take the reader into the thrilling world of writers, journalists, publishers, proof-readers and old bookshops.

March 04, 2015 03:26 pm | Updated 03:26 pm IST

The Patna Manual of Style: Stories; Siddharth Chowdhury, Aleph, Rs. 226.

The Patna Manual of Style: Stories; Siddharth Chowdhury, Aleph, Rs. 226.

To step into the stories of Siddharth Chowdhury is to enter a thrillingly familiar and enticing world of writers, teachers, students, journalists, publishers, proof-readers and old bookshops; one you seldom meet in Indian literature. In a series of linked stories, his new book, The Patna Manual of Style, returns us to Hriday Thakur, the writer-hero of Day Scholar , and his friends, family, old and present loves and even some old Bihari gallants like the formidable Jishnu da , now an importer of Russian blondes for Indian pleasure.

While this sequel is not the Apur Sansar I had envisioned for this favourite of favourite writers after his Aparajito , it is nevertheless Chowdhury’s Apur Sansar for Hriday — no profound tragedy at the end to shake up our writer-hero, but he is stirred into growing up, thanks to Samuel Aldington Macauley Crown, the best proof-reader on Ansari Road, when he inherits the Crown Jewels: a clutch of books inscribed by editors, cricketers and writers to Crown in gratitude for his ‘hawk-eyed’ proofing skills. The most fetching is from Vikram Seth (Crown proofed those 1, 500 pages in three weeks flat) with a doggerel in Sam Crown’s copy of A Suitable Boy : ‘For/The Unsinkable Mr. Samuel Crown/Who with nary a frown/Rose up through the words/Alas never to drown.’

There’s more of this literary amrit (on our legendary editors and proof-readers) in the story ‘Death of a Proofreader’, the best story in this volume and probably one of the finest short stories in contemporary fiction. Samuel Crown, the highly literate Anglo Indian, will remain one of the most memorable characters I’ll ever meet; and I can’t think of another major story about a proof-reader, can you?

On reading this Seth inscription for the first time at Crown’s 400 sq.ft. flat, Hriday feels a special thrill because, “Seth too was a Patna boy and a Xaverian to boot, like him.” There’s the Patna pride again (I’m sure Amitava Kumar will be nicely chuffed), which we’ve steadily tasted in Chowdhury’s writing, memoralising and expanding a place and time as tribute.

And what of Hriday himself, the aspiring writer of Day Scholar ? Chowdhury doesn’t tell us right away. When we meet him in the first chapter, he has just quit his job as copyeditor of a magazine, determined to work full time on a novel. We learn that he had, not long ago chucked up his M.Phil in Eng Lit and now he’s not sure how to fulfil the early promise of publishing a novel. That’s when he meets Jishnu da , who narrates a wild, explosive tale. A little later we meet Anjali Nalwa, Hriday’s old college girlfriend, now married and a published author. But we hear her story in her own voice — a startling narrative device the author employs here, as characters we earlier saw through Hriday’s eyes now speak in first person.

We also meet Hriday’s present love, the (film-society/art-house) cinematically named Charulata who worries about Hriday’s writerly ambition. In subsequent stories, we get inklings that Charulata may not be the one, after all, because there is the equally cinematic Chitrangada in his life now. Interspersed between stories of Hriday and those close to him are unconnected stories about other characters; one even a self-referential autobiographical vignette of Siddharth Chowdhury (which could be fiction) who feels all is well with the world only after he takes refuge in his writing sanctuary, a rented roof top room — exactly where we left Hriday at the end of Day Scholar.

I return now to my favourite story and character: Sam Crown and his literary lore. Hriday and Crown meet in a late night eatery. When invited by Hriday to feel and smell if his Harris Tweed coat is real, the proof-reader bellows in Wodehousian joie de vivre: “I do not want to smell you, dear boy, as I am not a devotee of the metre gauge but I will take your word that is Harris Tweed.”

Crown came to Delhi at the age of 15 and joined a letterpress shop as a compositor, learning to set type by hand. His gifts were such that he soon earned a reputation as publishing’s best proof-reader. The Crown Jewels as presented to the writer by the proof-reader, itemised, are thus: “The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, given to me by Samuel Israel when I was at Macmillan in the early seventies. Hart’s Rules for Composition presented to me by Surya Mathur on the day I completed a month at Oxford University Press…The Chicago Manual of Style, look at the inscription “From an Unknown Cricketer to a Master Proofreader”, Sujit Mukerjee gave his old copy to me on my farewell at Orient Longmans…Copy Editing by Judith Butcher. This was given to me by Bhola Varma at Manohar when the new edition came up…And this, the Viking edition of The Portable Kipling was given to me by Zameer Anzari at Penguin when I read the first proofs of A Suitable Boy in three weeks. All 1,500 pages of it.”

When The Patna Manual of Style closes with Sam Crown’s death, it is ripe for another Hriday Thakur novel; a full-length novel this time, not stories, that will pull us deeper into his life, work, family, and friends. But mostly his writing, as the hawk-eyed ghost of Samuel Crown looks over his shoulder, clutching “a tall coolly sweating tumbler of whisky and ice” in his inky hand.

The Patna Manual of Style: Stories;Siddharth Chowdhury, Aleph, Rs. 226.

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