Monday, September 30, 2019

On Devapriya Roy's Friends from College, the chao game, and a bridge to the past

[my latest First Post bookshelves column, about experiencing second-hand nostalgia through a very enjoyable new novel]

Every once in a while, you come across a novel that is pitched as being a very specific sort of nostalgia trip – one that doesn’t seem to apply to your life – and yet you find, on reading it, a portal to your own skein of memories. Second-hand nostalgia, if you will. For me this happened recently with Devapriya Roy’s delightful Friends from College.

On the face of it, this is very much a “Calcutta book” – the deceptively no-frills story is about an impromptu series of reunions involving friends, sometime-friends and exes who were in Presidency College together in the late 1990s. There are many affectionate insider references to the city and its culture. And such are the cadences of the writing, there were times when I could easily hear the characters speaking in what to my north Indian ears is a “Bengali voice”. In an early passage, the book’s protagonist Charulata Ghosh (who was known in college as Helen of Troy, acronym HoT) runs into a former junior, now a paunchy family man, who recognises her and unselfconsciously says (in the presence of his wife and child): “Ei, wait, wait. Aren’t you Helen of Troy? I am Bappa.” In my head I knew exactly what he sounded like.

Yet there is also a universality of mood and remembrance at work here. Among the many small details I enjoyed: the occurrence of the “chao game”, apparently very popular with a couple of generations of Calcutta students, and built around wordplay that can be goofy and clever at the same time. This might involve thinking up questions around city names, for instance. “In which Indian city are many things forbidden?” one character asks; the answer is Bangalore (or Ban Galore). The poser “If I ate my favourite type of meat in this city, I’d get renewed life force” points to Ranchi (aka Raan Chi).

This is fun for a reader for obvious reasons, but I thought the chao motif was important to this story on another level too. Here are a group of people who have just turned forty or are on the cusp of it, determinedly “adult” on the outside, shaped and burdened by multiple life experiences, changed in important ways from the nerdy and earnest students they were 20 years ago – and yet, things like the chao questions, which involve being silly and inventive at once, serve as a bridge between their Then and Now; a reminder that being all grown up and mature is often a performance; that most of us have our child-self just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much to trigger it.

The game can also be thought of as a time machine, or as Proust’s madeleine, depending on your perspective. At one point Charulata – or Lata – recalls the exact moment when her college boyfriend Ronny (now an upcoming film director) made up a specific question: it was on their second formal date, at Flurys, “over one mutton patty, halved”, and the poser itself was fairly basic (Which Indian city should you visit if things are not going your way? Answer: Luck Now) – but one sees how the memory of that specific chao exchange becomes a channel to other aspects of the past: old relationships, what a comforting restaurant used to be like back in the day, how one had to make do with limited pocket money. Friends from College is about returning to a place where one can be made to feel like a child all over again (even in the company of a much younger cousin); about encountering an old boyfriend, hearing about the signposts of his life, and reflecting on one’s own trajectory during those precise times. It is also about the generation gap: the divide between being a young urbanite in the 1990s (a time of dial-up internet connections and a few years before mobile phones became ubiquitous) and being a professional who lives and works in a world where even children take cutting-edge technology for granted.


But back to finding something of myself in a Calcutta novel. I have never lived in that city, and have made only brief visits in the past 20 years (for that most homogenous of experiences, the literature festival), but coincidentally my two most eventful trips there as a post-grad student were in October 1998 and January 1999, which happens to be when the protagonists of this book were studying together. The first trip was to experience a Calcutta Durga Puja for the first time, in the company of a Bengali friend who was studying in Delhi with me; the second involved thirty students from our batch going across to participate in IIM Calcutta’s annual festival.

In both cases there are memories of conversations that made passages of Friends from College instantly relatable. When Ronny is accosted by an elderly pedant who tests his knowledge of Kurosawa, Renoir and Marker, I could easily picture myself joining in this movie-nerd exchange, getting into sniffy arguments about the relative merits of this or that film – something I used to do with my first few know-it-all Bengali friends who, I always felt, needed to be pulled down a peg or three.

Those two trips seem very far away now, and in the last few months I have had reason to feel more sentimental and regretful about things that happened then and subsequently, with the same set of classmates. A few months ago, when one of my post-grad friends died, aged just 43, I wished I had been more in touch with him during the previous year. But it’s also true that all of us have our own chao-like bridges to the past, things that serve as memory-triggers: a silly nickname for a teacher or principal (“Ducky”), a word that was used bafflingly often by a teacher in class (“holistic”) a ribald phrase used by a friend who had discovered the pleasures of a softcore porn channel on satellite TV. (That phrase has become the almost inevitable title of a WhatsApp group for some of our classmates.)

Even as it deals with themes like the relationship between our past and present selves, and the things that give our lives some continuity (or semblance of continuity), Friends from College never loses its fluid, breezy tone – the sort of thing that can sometimes prevent a book from being taken seriously as a “literary” work, no matter how sharply written it might be. It’s likely that this owes to the nature of the writing process: it was originally serialised in The Telegraph over 42 weeks, and subsequently published as a book. Roy tells me that having had the first few chapters ready beforehand, she then wrote each instalment week by week to the newspaper deadline – no planning in detail, no outlining chapters, letting new characters emerge during the process – and that while this was nerve-wracking, “it was also electric in its own way, like skating on thin ice”.

It’s probable that this freed her up in some ways, preventing her from over-thinking structure and themes, focusing on the here and now, allowing a thread to take her where it might. And in a way, I think that’s a big part of what makes this book such a relatable nostalgia exercise. The writing is reminiscent in some ways to a particularly observant series of journal entries, the sort that the more “writerly” of us might have maintained in our college days, creating narratives about ourselves and our friends. I’m thinking now, in a slightly terrified way, of retrieving my 1998 and 1999 diaries and looking through them.

[Earlier Bookshelves columns are here]

1 comment:

  1. Presidency College early 90's here - now where's the book for our generation? :-) Thanks for the review, must read it.