Like another recent novel, Altaf Tyrewala's No God In Sight, Siddharth Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut has no narrative centre. There is no single point of view from which the story is told and which holds all the material together, although, unlike No God In Sight, the novel does have a central character: Ritwik Ray, a journalist with a daily in Patna.
Ritwik, we are told, went to university in Delhi (indeed, he is the first character I have come across in Indian fiction who went to the same college as I did, Hindu College) but, instead of staying on in the capital after his studies, or even seeking to go abroad like his girlfriend Mira, he decides to come back to the city where he grew up, work there, and write a book of stories. The novel has several themes - the relationship between provincial centre and metropolitan capital, the nature of childhood experience and adolescent sexual awakening, the moral apathy and entrenched prejudices of the Indian middle-class - but the most important one, in my reading, is the way in which we are formed, at that period of life when our personalities are most open to influence, by the striking character and passions and dreams of certain people around us - how what we think of as the discrete individual personality is to a great extent a series of relationships and inheritances.
The first two sections of the book, while told in the first person by Ritwik and notionally about his early life, are really odes to two characters who dominate his Patna childhood. Harryda is "a man who loved style": a good-looking, hard-drinking, high-living figure who plays cricket for a local club and dreams of writing scripts for movies ("He ate, slept, talked, breathed movies", we are told, and so does the book, which is full of references to cinema), but whose spirit is broken by a love affair that ends badly. Iladi is another character whose dreams shatter upon the rocks of reality (a clumsy metaphor, but in keeping with the spirit of this piece, for I borrow it a bit of dialogue from the film Deewar). A voracious reader, an idealist, and, as is often the case with idealists, a Marxist when she grows up, Iladi is attacked by an angry mob while staging a protest play in Delhi, and loses her life. Of her Ritwik writes: "She was the first person in my life who taught me that there was such a thing as a secret world of the mind which could be more real and enriching than the mundane reality of our meagre existence."
Chowdhury writes a kind of prose which, if sometimes peculiar in tone or construction, is almost always interesting. There are many instances in which he seems to feel no need for commas where ninety-nine out of a hundred writers would prefer to use one ("Devoid of any musical talent Happy just happily collected the money"; "Ila switched the radiogram off stopping Rosemary Clooney in mid-flight"). But he has a great feel for place, for piquant disorienting observations in which the oddest things are coupled together ("What is it with adolescent Patna convent girls and Edna St.Vincent Millay, I wonder sometimes"), and for details which are interpreted first by the eye and then by the imagination ("men coming from offices in their sweat-soaked and defeated shirts").
And finally, the last section of the book, "Waiting for Godard", is one of the very best pieces of extended prose I've read this year. It is narrated for most part by Mira, Ritwik's ex-girlfriend, now married to one of his best friends and settled in America, but back in Patna for a brief visit. The great advantage of first-person narration is that it allows one to recover the emotional immediacy of past experience, breaking down the border between the present and the past as is the case when we ourselves think about past events that have affected us deeply. Mira's narration roves over her childhood in Patna; her love affair with Ritwik during their years at Delhi University and all their shared moments and interests, such as a love for the movies - over little spots of time that, in retrospect, seem significant.
Then we arrive at the present moment, when the two run into each other at a Cine Society screening; Chowdhury depicts the rush of their respective feelings with an uncommon tenderness and empathy, and also finds for this episode the perfect finish. Patna Roughcut is worth your money just for this section alone.
Jai Arjun Singh also has a piece on Patna Roughcut here. And here are links to pieces about some other Indian novels that featured on the Middle Stage this year: Tyrewala's No God in Sight, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Waiting For Rain, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's Srikanta, and Attia Hosain's Sunlight On A Broken Column.