Political is personal

If you grew up in a small town in the 1970s, studied in a convent school, and later wended your way to college and hostel in Delhi University, this book will be a nostalgic one — whether it is for the smell of Lakme egg shampoo (long ago swamped by L'Oreal), choir practice, or parathas at the P G Women's hostel canteen. Yet this is a novel more ambitious than a coming of age saga, the usual bildungsroman; it is also a kunstlerroman, a portrait of an artist. This accounts for the book's structure: the first three sections are in the protagonist's voice, the next are extracts from his first book, and the last section is from the point of view of his ex-lover. These narrative strategies, though simply constructed, invest the protagonist with a certain significance.

Ritwik Ray grows up in Patna, and will eventually make a choice to return and work there. In some ways, it is Patna that is the protagonist of this book. However much you can imagine transposing the action onto another small town or city, Chowdhury's strength is his sure and concrete relationship with the place where he locates his novel. While he peels away the layers of the pretensions and hypocrisies of the benighted middle classes, he also sketches, with compassion, a portrait of a place sunk in cultural torpor and riven with caste antagonisms. Simultaneously, the author charts some of the major political movements in this country since the 1970s: that of Jay Prakash Narayan, the Naxal revolution, the Mandal agitations.

The book ends around the time Laloo Prasad Yadav, having come to power in Patna, arrests L K Advani and stops his Ram rath yatra from entering Bihar. The 'political' in this book is the personal, and at no point do we feel Chowdhury is merely using it to form a 'turbulent' backdrop to a saga of 'small-town' life. That too is a strength. Chowdhury seems to get every nuance right: the Bengali-Bihari confluence, the upper-caste response to Mandal, and the casual violence against a Muslim boy from Bangladesh.

Ritwik's world is defined by the characters who people it. Harryda is the film buff who invites fate after flouting convention by living with a lower-caste woman, and who is a direct counter to the hearty youths with whom Ritwik went to school and played cricket. Mrinal Babu is the local zamindar, and his loyal minion, Saifu Mian. Most importantly is Mrinal Babu's granddaughter, Ila Lytton Mowbray. Ha will decide what Ritwik reads; this, in turn, becomes a central shaping experience for both protagonist and reader. This is a book about books, their power to transform us and to define us.

Ila, beaten to death by right-wingers while performing a street play, continues to haunt and shape Ritwik's life. This is resented by his lover, Mira Verma, who will eventually marry the urbane Samar Sinha. The last section of the book, recounted by Mira, delivers us a Ritwik seen through her eyes. Both Mira and Ritwik are writers now, but Ritwik does not particularly want to be published in New York; he is content with his Patna audience.

In a book that is intelligent and dense with observation and recall (even though the prose is occasionally clumsy), a few things do seem odd. There is no interiority — we do not really 'know' the characters well, for observation takes the place of interior growth. In that sense, the characters tend to be flat, particularly the protagonist, who is too much the author's mouthpiece. The other is the somewhat mannered way in which the women characters are developed. This reviewer was, in fact, reminded of another Ila: in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines. That's a praiseworthy book, too, but with the same problem. Both Mira and Ila here are deeply and problematically romanticised; in turn, Ritwik becomes a darkly glamorous character in Mira's narrative. This, perhaps, lends a somewhat precious air to the sections detailing Delhi University and the return to Patna (the setting is the Patna tine society, the film Godard, the section of the novel rather awkwardly called 'Waiting for Godard').

Yet these remain minor quibbles. This is not another dreary growing-up novel, but is highly recommended. Patna Roughcut charts the history of a generation with both credibility and passion.

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Himal Southasian