The Patna Manual of Style, a collection of inter-linked stories by Siddharth Chowdhury seemed promising, but it was anything but. I reviewed it for The New Indian Express' magazine section. Here today. Or see below for a slightly unedited version.
PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN
There is a certain quiet comfort in stereotypes. A character stretch that does not veer off from the generalization is familiar, unsurprising and hence, your reaction to it is familiar as well, predetermined almost. Life is easy when you can box people and situations into stereotypes, however untrue these caricatures may be. Thus we have the liberal left leaning Hriday Thakur who wants to lead a literary life, but is not always sure of wanting to deal with the near penury that marks the early years of such ambition. Every few pages, the reader is told that Thakur, from Bihar, smokes Gold Flakes and likes his Peter Scot, establishing, sometimes, hammering, the image of the struggling writer in your mind. Just so you don't forget he is also an aspiring intellectual, Thakur picks up a Turgenev, a Dostoyevsky now and then. It is thus that the interlinked short stories in Siddharth Chowdhury's The Patna Manual of Style tip a wide brimmed hat to an idealistic, stereotypical world of liberals as they down their sorrows of reality in Russian literature and cheap whisky.
The timeline of the stories goes back and forth into the now and when Thakur was a much younger man. In each, we meet people from his life, most of them women, from the slightly dubious Jishnu da, an 'importer of blondes' for his dance company to Charulata, a lost love, to the fiery Anjali Singh Nalwa, now a novelist courting controversy, to his wife Chitrangada, baker of the famous 'tipple cake', who on Sundays "smells of Sunday. Unwashed and full of sex." A hormonal young man at 22, Thakur, six months old in the big city of Delhi, spends evenings at his barsaati fantasizing about Surma Kaneez, his thoughts coloured by an element of the forbidden, for his mother would accept anything, save a Muslim daughter-in-law. He cannot wait to get a girlfriend, "bored with wearing my heart on my sleeve for so long, I want to wear a condom now, for a change."
As he grows in a reluctant career in publishing, the world of literature becomes the backdrop of narratives that take the reader through Thakur's memories of Sophia Singh, Sophia Loren to those who had a crush on her, through the funeral of Samuel Aldington Macauley Crown, proofreader par excellence. Along the way, in mildly erotic tones, Sadaf Khan Abdali tells how a particular book on the shelves of the man was what got her goat, in one of the more memorable pieces from the collection.
Hriday Thakur, lover, aspiring writer, reader, tells of his life in but a couple of stories. The ones where the women in his life narrate are the strongest in the collection. It is through their voices that the most interesting sketches of Thakur's life and loves are drawn, where he speaks, it is often matter of fact, bordering on the prosaic. The Bihari babu in Delhi runs through the book, his town-ness never wholly faded away, even after all these years.
The collection is a tad inconsistent in its ability to hold attention, though the straight faced unsentimentality is often refreshing. While some stories do interest, others merely offer a glimpse via stray sentences of what they could have instead read like, if only... In being so, The Patna Manual of Style falls just short of being wholeheartedly recommendable. At best, the book would make fair company on a long train journey, if you wanted something that was not pulp, but nothing too taxing either.