(My review, which appeared in today’s Business Standard. Unfortunately I’ve only been able to scratch the book’s surface [as the review suggests]. There’s plenty more to say about it, but even 700 words was just not enough, and I never got around to writing a longer version. Will try later. As things stand, I ended up focusing on one aspect of the book that I could identify with, and sticking with it.)
Among the many passages in Siddharth Chowdhury’s debut novel that gave me a shudder of recognition is this one, a description of Cine Society regulars in Patna: "The men coming from offices in their sweat-soaked and defeated shirts…Seems frighteningly incongruous that they should watch Godard, or Truffaut, or Resnais, thrice a month…Did they really love the movies so much or was it something they just did, like eat mutton religiously on Sundays. A kind of middle-class conformity."
Reading this, I thought of film festival screenings at Siri Fort Auditorium and other venues in Delhi; of small groups of regulars waiting outside the theatre, conforming to the jhola-carrying stereotype; and of conversations that sometimes run along the lines "boss, this film is a bit slow, but it feels good to know that you’ve seen it - it gives you a sense of culture." And afterwards many of these people go back to humdrum jobs that have little to do with the world of the movies they so avidly discuss; or to college, to prepare for such careers.
This isn’t to suggest that most youngsters who frequent film festivals do so out of a sense of obligation, or that they get nothing worthwhile from the experience. And the Cine Society passage is, of course, only a small part of Chowdhury’s powerful book. But it captures a motif that runs through the work: that of disaffected people with idealistic notions about "high culture" that have little relevance to the realities of their lives; of dreams that come to naught; of too much thinking and not enough acting.
The narrative begins with Ritwik Ray, a reporter, returning to his hometown Patna after completing his Master’s in Delhi. He meets all the regulars, learns of the sad death of an old acquaintance, Harryda; he remembers his own relationship with the dead man. Ritwik moves on to tell the story of Mrinal Babu, a once-powerful landlord fallen on hard days, and of his retainer Saifu Mian, who becomes one of the book’s recurring characters. Then, midway through, there is a short, intense account of Ritwik’s childhood illness and his witnessing a scene of violence that forever alters the way he looks at the people around him. Here, the narrative abruptly fractures and the last two sections of the book are told by other people of Ritwik’s acquaintance. What this adds up to is a structure with elements of magic realism, and a kaleidoscopic narrative that becomes especially interesting towards the end. But this is only scratching the book’s surface.
Most of Ritwik’s reference points are drawn from films and literature: bandmasters in ballroom parties have "Errol Flynn’s moustaches", Mrinal Babu’s lady friend "looked like a young Charlotte Rampling with bobbed hair". Patna Roughcut is awash with such references, and part of the author’s point is that these things have little to do with the hard facts of the protagonists’ lives. Nowhere is this more true than in the section dealing with Harryda. As a youngster, he watched DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and dreamt of making an epic film. He ran into Marlon Brando once at the Patna aerodrome. He opened the young Ritwik’s eyes to the beauty of literature and cinema. And then he ended life a failed drunkard, broken in spirit, staying in a jhuggi with an illiterate woman. Ritwik’s reaction when he hears about this is very telling: "A man who loved style beauty and poetry…living with a low-caste washerwoman? Would she ever know who Cecil B DeMille is, or Sherwood Anderson for that matter?" But the subtext here is that this base washerwoman has at least reconciled herself to reality - unlike Harryda, who was crippled by his own pipedreams.
Patna Roughcut shows its hand early on; the very first paragraph of the book ends an overwrought analogy with the observation: "The poor shouldn’t dream. They can’t afford it." The remaining 180 pages are an illustration of this statement. Cynical though the idea is, it defines the lives of untold millions in this country - people who reach for greater intellect and "culture" and find that it destroys their pragmatism; that they are still unable to escape the vicious circle of their existence. Chowdhury’s achievement is that he filters this pessimistic worldview through a style that is tender, empathetic and even humorous when appropriate. This is crucial to the book’s success as a story of the aspirations and dashed hopes of young Indians caught between different worlds.