It’s slightly unsettling to read a first novel written by someone you’ve hitherto known in only a one-dimensional way - especially if that one dimension happens to be as a Very Scary Boss, and the story is a personal one. Sudeep Chakravarti’s Tin Fish is a fluidly written coming-of-age tale set over a 3-4-year period in the mid-1970s in Mayo College, Ajmer, and narrated by Barun Ray (nicknamed “Brandy” on his first day of school). The story revolves around Brandy and his three closest friends (notably “Fish”, whose tragic fate gives the book its emotional centre), their experiences at boarding-school and how they cope with being cut off from family for long periods (or, in some cases, with not being cut off for long enough) – and with growing up during the political tumult of the Emergency and its farcical aftermath. Much slang (“cat”, for instance) abounds. There are cameos by the buxom Katy Mirza, the urine-imbibing Morarji Desai and other relics from the era. It’s an enjoyable read and (something I’m always grateful for these days) a quick one, easily finished in the course of an afternoon.
I met Sudeep the other day for a profile but that was only part of it; we were going to catch up anyway. He was my first boss in journalism, and like most others in the NewspaperToday.Com office I was chary about his temper. When I joined the website in 2001 I didn’t have to interact much with him the first few months but I heard hair-raising stories from colleagues, and occasionally witnessed for myself how the entire 6th floor of Videocon Tower would reverberate when he bellowed at someone. Night after torturous night of doing the 1 AM-9 AM graveyard shift, staring bleary-eyedly into the computer screen at the wretched site template that had to be refreshed every few minutes, I was kept awake by the doom spelt out by a more experienced colleague: “So mat jaana varna Gabbar Singh ka phone call aa jayega.” (Sudeep, if you’re reading this that was Rumman, and now that we’re all living in different cities I can only hope and pray that you won’t hunt him down!)
Later, when the afternoon paper Today was launched from the same office, we worked together more closely – but even though we were all on edge during those weeks leading up to the launch (the intensity levels higher than I’ve ever known in my professional life), some of the fearfulness also dissipated. For a brief, foolishly idealistic period, every member of the team felt proprietorial about this thing we were all giving birth to, and so it was easy to empathise when someone else lost their temper. And subsequently, after Sudeep had left the paper, we stayed in touch on the phone and occasionally at nostalgia get-togethers, and I saw a mellower side to him.
But all that hadn’t prepared me for Tin Fish - for the childlike enthusiasm that runs through the book, the sense one gets of a writer wanting to set down everything he can remember about the era in which he grew up. I know many former Mayo students with whom Sudeep’s book has struck a chord but I think there’s more to it than that. What interested me most (apart, of course, from the natural interest there is in reading a first novel by someone you know) was the first-person perspective it provided of a particular time and milieu. It doesn’t pretend to be an indepth social record but it reads like an honest account by someone who lived through interesting times. (One of the things Sudeep and I discussed was that there’s so much talk of chronicling the “real India” - whatever that grossly overused term means - in current literature that a lot of other things get undermined: the experiences, for instance, of a whole urban generation that grew up in boarding schools in the 1970s and who are as much a part of modern India as anyone else.)
I think it’s vital for personal experiences of this sort to be chronicled, especially because of the pace at which the world is changing now. To take an example: Sudeep is 15 years older than I am so there’s a clear generational gap there. But, as I often discuss with friends, people in my age group already feel alienated from those who are just five or six years younger than us. Some of us, 28-year-old sages that we are, already think there’s a case for our story to be told, because the world is so much different now from when we were growing up. This comes up every time I feel like walking up to a 20-year-old and saying, “Did you know, once upon a not-so-long time ago, the highlight of our TV-watching week was gathering around the B&W set on Sunday evening to see the old film Doordarshan was telecasting that day?” Or “Tsk tsk. We didn’t have cellphones in college – we used paper chits, not SMSes, to send messages to girlfriends. Paper chits build character.” Or “It seems just yesterday that a ‘trunk call’ used to be a special event – and now you kids have MSN Messenger and, worse, Google Talk? Bah!”
Groan, I feel so old. So thanks, Sudeep, for reminding me that there are generations that precede mine. I don’t even remember that Katy Mirza. She must’ve been cat.