Siddharth Chowdhury is the most underrated contemporary Indian writer. He is no celebrity, however, and calls himself “that strange pariah of the literary world: the writer’s writer”.
Siddharth Chowdhury is the most underrated contemporary Indian writer. He is no celebrity, however, and calls himself “that strange pariah of the literary world: the writer’s writer”. In a book review I had likened him to Anton Chekhov, but it is obvious that he is a unique hybrid between Chekhov and the Hindi film magazine Mayapuri, which in its end pages used to print Bollywood scenes with “unintentionally hilarious dialogue coming out in a bubble from the mouths of the hero and the heroine”. Chowdhury wryly observes life, and like Chekhov his characters and situations recur in his writing: He takes scenes of middle-class life in the twin-axis universe of Patna’s Kadam Kuan and the Delhi University ecosystem, and imposes on these scenes speech bubbles that, in a Chekhovian way, does a “Gestalt Switch” between comedy and pathos. The campus life setting brings to mind the Commercial Fiction Goldmines of Bhagat et al; with so many Biharis and Bengali-Biharis passing through the DU-UPSC keema-machine each year, it is a wonder Chowdhury doesn’t have the legion of readers that pedestrian writers do. But such is the luck of the draw.
Chowdhury’s fourth publication, The Patna Manual of Style came out last year, and now the publisher of his first three works — Diksha at St Martin’s, Patna Roughcut and Day Scholar — has reissued the volumes in an anthology, Ritwik & Hriday, named after two characters who narrate most of the stories. Ritwik Ray derives from Bengali cinema’s two auteurs, Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. Hriday Thakur: this ignoramus reviewer can only speculate it to mean “Tagore”. Diksha has several narrators and though luminous throughout it is obviously the writer’s first; Roughcut is mostly Ritwik; and Scholar is mostly Hriday. The books comprise overlapping stories of drifters in Patna and their trysts with films, girls, cricket and goondas; and stories of drifters at DU and their trysts with films, girls, civil service exams and goondas. Scholar might be called a novel disguised as the offspring of short stories. Both Roughcut and Scholar are even more LOL the second time around.
On the surface the writing has the languid, unhurried pace of small-town life; that langour, though, hides each middle-class Indian’s inner turmoil, best alluded to by Hriday in Scholar: “It was about whom you knew and how good your own caste network was and whether your caste was in ascendance or in decline.” It is the turmoil that drives so many of the declining upper castes to DU, to try for the civil services and “change the profile” not just of themselves, but also of their families; where after repeated failures, some even become “Danasurs”, because after all: “Dreams are like cut-glass carafes. They are fragile and expensive and they disintegrate at the very first impact with cold reality...”
So it is all about appearances, to mask the inner decay, which is why Chowdhury is very meticulous in his detail about who wears what; which is why Hriday’s classmate Chandragupta II (I know, ha ha) tells him guilelessly about his mama: “Yes, the very same one who wears white patent leather sandals and moves around town in a chaffeur-driven rickshaw”. Chowdhury, speaking through Hriday, mischievously tells us how, “following Hemingway’s advice, I was training myself to observe better, to notice things only a writer would”. He notices their clothes, their appearance and their surroundings, training to look at everyone as a potential character; but: “But over the years I have learnt, after many mishaps, that it is always safer just to make things up.”
Chowdhury doesn’t seem to mind being “a writer’s writer”. He laments the life of a short story writer: “The slide from the land of gup to the land of chup has been swift and definitive”; he is self-ironic: “As for Mean Streets, for the first time in my life I was watching something close to my own reality (perhaps at that very moment a young boy in Bolton or Vermont watching the Apu trilogy was feeling the same way)...”; and he is self-referential in both Roughcut, where the narration of the Patna Golghar at the beginning of the book becomes the spoken words of another character near the end, and in Scholar, where the tragic story of Hriday’s lower-caste medical-aspirant friend Vishnu Rajak in the first half of the book becomes the stuff with which Hriday later churns out a short story.
But most of all, what has endured in the past 14 years of Chowdhury’s Universe (or Chowdhury-verse) is that he has written the everyman experience for every man. Each sentence is well-crafted. There are no stereotypes, and each character is brought to life in a few brushstrokes. Such is his hard-worked craft — he describes the process through Hriday — that his quirky paragraphs make his humour seem effortless. The best writing is the simplest-seeming writing, and the simplest writing is always the hardest to do. Chowdhury, at the anthology’s end, tells us he will stick with these characters: “So it would continue, hopefully every decade or so. The world of my novels is enclosed and exclusive and I would like to believe it is universal.”
He has chosen to approach the universal through the particular; his voice and style have already succeeded. Chekhov would be proud. We have something to look forward to, every decade or so, by India’s most underrated writer.
Aditya Sinha is the co-author of the recent bestseller Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years