There is an oft-quoted saying in the Indian state of Bihar about Biharis living outside their home state and it goes like this: “You can take a Bihari out of Bihar but you can’t take Bihar out of a Bihari.” And this adage perfectly suits Siddharth Chowdhury.
As it happened in his previous two novels, Patna Roughcut and Day Scholar, the historical city of Patna and other cities of Bihar remain to be important settings in many stories of his latest offering also. A collection of interlinked stories, the book is aptly titled The Patna Manual of Style.
The first story of this collection opens in Connaught Place in New Delhi with beautiful descriptions of the locality and its surroundings. The readers are made to walk on the roads around Shivaji Stadium, then made to climb the stairs of Madras Hotel before you are properly introduced to Jai Shanker Sharma aka Jishnu da, the redoubtable character from the author’s previous novel Day Scholar.
Once upon a time, Jishnu da used to be a typical Bihari civil services aspirant. Now, he has become a pimp and importer of Russian and Ukrainian blondes to cater to Indian neo-rich.
Along with Jishnu da we also meet the protagonist of Day Scholar and a budding novelist from Patna, Hriday Thakur, who is the narrator of this story titled ‘The Importer of Blondes’. The meeting between these two unlikely characters are accidental. Hriday has just been thrown out of his current job and trying to think about his future course of actions when Jishnu da bumps into him. Jishnu asks for forgiveness from Hriday for the awful things he did to him in the past. The old scores are settled when Hriday slaps Jishnu. After that, both the men sit down together in a bar to drink.
And here the main plot of story unfolds in Odessa (a city in Ukraine) and we are told the sad story of a Ukranian girl, Anna Kuchma, and learn about her journey from a Ukrainian city to Delhi where she works as a belly dancer. Anna’s story of transformation from an innocent lower class girl to a belly dancer has universal appeal because such things keep happening in all the neo-liberal and capitalist societies where the impoverished and downtrodden have no option but to sell their bodies and souls just to keep themselves alive.
Jishnu da for whom morality and ethics make little sense is madly in love with Anna, the prettiest girl Jishnu has ever seen and, to everybody’s utter surprise, he is a perfect gentleman with her. The denouement of the story comes as a big surprise when Jishnu does something which is least expected from him.
Written in first person, the author has beautifully captured the idiosyncrasies of the characters. As he always does, Siddharth describes the places and locations in very lucid and interesting manner. Despite the fact that this short story begins in Delhi, travels to Odessa and London, and returns to the Indian Capital as the climax approaches, Patna and Bihar keep making their presence felt throughout the story.
Siddharth’s Patna connection and Bihari identity shape the narrative of another tale titled ‘Death of a Proofreader’. The main character of this story is Samuel Aldington Macaulay Crown, the best known proofreader of Delhi. Son of an Anglo-Indian father and a Bihari mother, Crown is not sure about his identity but feels strongly about his Scottish lineage. What he is sure about is his job as a proofreader as he takes pride in whatever he does. And that is why he is the best in his profession.
Despite his pretensions of being a Scottish, his taste buds are of a Bihari as he has a weakness for a well-known Bihari delicacy called Litti-Chokha. And, on the bench of the famous eatery Yadav Littie Centre in Paharganj, Delhi, he meets Hriday Thakur from Patna. Both of them have been there to enjoy their favourite Bihari dish. They strike a bond in a few minutes of conversation as they discover that they both love litti-chokha and both are the part of the publishing industry. Their relationship continues till the day Crown dies.
Told from the point of view of Hriday Thakur, this story, in fact, starts with Hriday attending the funeral of Crown in a cemetery in Delhi. Crown’s childhood was not easy. He spent his youth in a low paying and demanding job as a proof-reader. In his personal life, too, he couldn’t save his marriage, and had solitude as a companion to him in his post retirement years.
The life story of Crown tells Hriday to re-think of his mission to pursue the path of literary excellence ignoring almost everything in his life. “From Crown’s despair at the loss of his family and his daily pinning for his daughter” makes Hriday realise “the pain he had caused his own parents by cutting himself off” from his family and for not fulfilling the wishes of his parents. And this pondering over his indifference towards his parents brings changes in Hriday’s life as he starts caring about his family which reflects in the increase in the frequency of telephone calls to his parents.
An interesting aspect of the story is that it gives an insider’s view of the Indian publishing industry and we get a chance to meet many eccentric and idiosyncratic editors, writers, publishers, etc. The way the readers feel about the protagonist of this story, Crown, speaks volume of the author’s ability to create a believable character with complexities who is able to garner all the empathy of the readers despite his flaws.
Nestled between these two wonderful stories, there are seven more short stories; each of them makes a fascinating read. The most enjoyable features of Siddharth’s stories are his expertise to invoke a sense of nostalgia and to write juicy descriptions of the places where his stories take place. The time travel as well as travel across the geographies in his stories is so smooth that the readers feel no jerk at all. It is almost like travelling in a Mercedes on Japanese roads.
In short, The Patna Manual of Style is a perfect example of a good fiction book. My only complaint against the author is why on earth does he write books that are so slim. My only request to him is that his next novel should be at least 300 pages long if a magnum opus like A Suitable Boy is not possible.