Brilliant Tutorials: Trisha Gupta reviews Siddharth Chowdhury’s “Day Scholar”

Guest post by TRISHA GUPTA

On the face of it, Siddharth Chowdhury’s Day Scholar, is a coming of age novel. The book’s own inside cover actually describes it as a “crazed and profane coming of age tale”, whose plot is ostensibly about how Patna boy Hriday Thakur (“who hopes to be a writer some day”) is first “trapped… by a series of misjudgements” and later “saved from a terrible end”. But much like Chowdhury’s previous offering, Patna Roughcut (also billed as “a story of love, idealism and sexual awakening” that takes us to “the heart of an aching, throbbing youth”), Day Scholar – despite a self-referential moment when its protagonist is asked by his father about how his Bildugsroman is coming along – is not a book that seems containable within the neat boundaries of the coming-of-age genre.

This is not necessarily a criticism. While there are those who might be baffled by the freewheeling air with which Chowdhury moves in and out of the lives of several different characters, or even feel cheated out of the readerly pleasure afforded by deep identification with a single protagonist, he has an admirable ability to weave what may seem like disparate anecdotes about several kinds of kaands into a seamless narrative. (“Kaand”, for those not party to the often sublime pleasures of Hindi, is a word that can translate into something as neutral as ‘event’, or acquire as vast a sense as ‘catastrophe’.) He is a master of the shaggy dog story, often going off on long-winded tangents that seem entirely unpremeditated – until you realize that he has managed to entirely shift the emotional register of his narrative within the space of a paragraph, or even a sentence. So a quietly cynical account of being a small-time reporter (“I am not one of those hot shot political analysts who ferret out important things about life and corruption. I write about minor cultural happenings and if Patna had a vibrant cocktail circuit I would be what you call a society reporter”) can segue, quite without warning, into the chillingly banal details of a “human interest story” about “a carpenter by caste” being found dead inside Golghar alongside a suicide note saying that his Bhumihar wife of two months had been abducted by her parents. Or a bunch of regulars at the run-down Annapoorna Café can move from sniggering about the death of someone they know as his being “’set’ for life” to being forced to reluctantly register the event as a tragedy (“The laughter slowly left their lips. They lowered their eyes and dragged on a Charminar.”)

The constant movement between cynicism and sentiment seems, in fact, to be a characteristic of Chowdhury’s narratorial voice. In Patna Roughcut, his first novel, published in 2005, this voice was even more unpolished, literally rough-cut. That book opened, for instance, with the following analogy: “Dreams are like cut-glass carafes… [they] only look beautiful on the sideboards of the rich because if a particular dream suddenly shatters, they can always buy another. The poor shouldn’t dream. They can’t afford it.” There is something about this, combining as it does the dramatic tone of 1980s filmi dialogue with the attempted epigraph-like tone of teenage autograph books, that comes off sounding much less cool and much more sentimental than it seems to aim for. At first reading, it appears naïve, cliched and wannabe philosophical, all at once. But then it strikes one that may be precisely the tone that the author intends to create – the voice of a narrator who is much less cynical than he pretends to be, whose self-conscious veneer of bravado is often betrayed by a rather emotional, even romantic core.

This tone is common to both Ritwik Ray of Patna Roughcut and Hriday Thakur of Day Scholar, whose first person narratives make up a great part of those books, respectively (though Patna Roughcut does contain sections narrated by figures who have previously appeared in Ritwik’s narrative as characters). There are several other things that Ritwik and Hriday have in common – their Patna pasts, their Delhi University present and their writerly ambitions. They share these with each other as well as with Siddharth Chowdhury –  which might push readers in the direction of reading these novels as autobiographical. Which they may well be. But Chowdhury pre-empts any such boringly linear thoughts with some clever intertextual jugglery, making Ritwik, his girlfriend Mira Verma and the Subaltern historian Samar Sinha from Patna Roughcut make guest appearances in Day Scholar. This constant cross referencing of characters, even minor ones – like Sudama Pathak, who appears in Patna Roughcut as the author of the masterful and deeply unsettling “Patna Good Food Guide” and reappears in Day Scholar when he befriends Hriday, his junior at Commerce College, and then plays a critical role in his arrival at Shokeen Nivas, the faux-hostel full of (largely Bihari) Delhi University students that is the setting for Day Scholar – creates a kind of deliberate jigsaw of characters and events, and goes a long way towards making Chowdhury’s universe come brilliantly and cinematically to life, in the manner of some Robert Altman movie.

The other thing that Chowdhury has, and has in abundance, is a sense of place, which is linked, of course, to a sense of time. If in Patna Roughcut he cuts rapidly between Patnas past and present, deftly splicing his account of the still seersucker-suited ex-zamindar Mrinal Thakur-Chowdhury being escorted home by rickshaw in the 1980s with say, the near-mythical encounter that took place between a Pathan miner and an Ara Rajput on Direct Action Day 1946, in Day Scholar Chowdhury concentrates on recreating an early 1990s world. It is the world of pre-liberalisation India, constituted in no small measure through the invocation of a constellation of (often branded) objects whose names are enough to jolt the Indian reader of a certain age into a shared nostalgia for a middle class material culture that seems historic even if its constituents may in fact survive: Sandow ganjis, Rajdoot 175 motorcycles, Brilliant Tutorials, portable Panasonics, flared black jeans, “the kind one bought cheap from Tank Road in Karol Bagh”, Graviera suit lengths offered as gurudakshina to those who wrote exams on one’s behalf.

In terms of locale, with Day Scholar, Chowdhury’s centre of gravity moves from Patna’s Kadam Kuan: “a place of genteel shabbiness, large colonial houses with peeling paint, peopled with once-aristocratic families come down in life” where “ambition and upward mobility are looked down upon and the trading classes frankly distrusted” to the badlands of North Delhi, encompassing Delhi University, with Shokeen Niwas at its centre. The pride taken in the acquisition of Shokeen Niwas by its half-Jat half-Gujjar owner, the formidable light-eyed political broker and property dealer Zorawar Singh Shokeen, gives Chowdhury a chance to mull lovingly on the spatio-historical landscape of North Campus and its hinterlands:

“From the terrace Zorawar can see… Kirori Mal and Hansraj College at a stone’s throw. Beyond loom the dense kikar-encrusted Delhi Ridge and Bara Hindu Rao, where in 1857 Zorawar’s Gujjar ancestors fought their last stand against the British and their Sikh mercenaries and forever lost the land on which the North Campus would later be built. Hindu College, St. Stephen’s College, and the back gate of Miranda House… If Zorawar turns his head he can see Roop Nagar, Shakti Nagar, Amba Cinema Hall and outside it Darvesh Dhaba which serves wonderful frontier food, and finally Malkaganj where Mrs. Midha, his future paramour, lives with her homeopath husband and fourteen-year-old daughter.”

Later in the book, Chowdhury pithily describes the campus coming alive with the public theatre of male-female interaction: “Like in most small towns of Bihar, when evening descends and people saunter off to the nearby railway station for entertainment, so in Delhi University Biharis… lit out for Chhatra Marg. There they would dawdle for a couple of hours, have tea at Jai Jawan dhaba, meet their girlfriends… and thrash out ‘compromises; without any group coming to real blows. ‘Compromises’ were usually about imagined slights to one’s dignity concerning a girl who was a ‘sister’ even though the girl may not have known the guy but was from the same town.”

As should be apparent from all this, Chowdhury has few equals when it comes to the deftly drawn pen-portrait. His prose may appear littered with names and places and dates and events (mostly remembered ones, though sometimes also, as in the passage above, events still to come), but if you look carefully, this dense accumulation of detail is carried out with the utmost attentiveness. The throwaway ease with which new characters are introduced and side-stories told is a narratorial strategy, deliberately crafted to create the impression of chatty, gossipy storytelling – what in North India might most clearly be described as gup. And one of the most striking things about this gupbaaz tone is its uncensored, unexpurgated quality. Among the things Chowdhury is not coy about is sex: Day Scholar opens with a sex scene that involves not just its mutually consenting participants but also a contingent of Peeping Toms. Later, it introduces the reader to such remarkable psycho-social concepts as the chutpal: “[J]ust like every door has a dwarpal every chut has a chutpal. A chutpal never gets the chut just like the dwarpal rarely gets to sleep in the master bedroom. Every good girl needs at least one chutpal, to run errands for her and listen to her bitch about her mother.”

Even more striking, though are Chowdhury’s (or rather his characters’) unabashed references to caste, around which most Indian writing in English tends to maintain a cordon sanitaire of coyness and/or stifling political correctness even stronger than that which surrounds sex and sexuality. Chowdhury has no such compunctions. From the Bhumihar Jishnu da’s distrust of Bengalis (“They think too much. You cannot trust such people”) to the matter-of-fact reference to the delicacy of “Bania girls before the fat finally catches up with them”, or Mrs. Midha’s comment about liberalization as God’s gift to the upper castes, this is a world in which caste is simply a fact of life – the basis of opinions, alliances and battles, not something swept under the carpet. Like with much else in Day Scholar, it may seem unsavoury, but it seems real.

[First published in Biblio.]

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