22 September 2010

Day Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury

Growing up on Indian campus
As I leapt into Shokeen Niwas, the first thing I saw was a large pair of buttocks (one “that even Asha Parekh would be proud of”) and some associated revelry which only served to dull my enthusiasm.
Wearily anticipating endless pages of crude and raunchy (though doubtless very, ahem, hip stuff), I plodded on, my patience unexpectedly rewarded with prose of the highest quality. Sidhharth Chowdhury writes well, and this book was an absolute pleasure to read.
Now Day Scholar is not a story with a specific plot. Avoiding overworked labels like “coming-of-age novel”, let me just say that it ambles along and its pages of sharp, evocative description vividly bring alive Indian college and hostel life in the 1990s.
As I read, I thought, “This sounds familiar! Where have I read it before?” and racked my brains for a long while till I realised that it wasn’t something I’d read before.
No, I hadn’t read it in a book – I’d been there.
This was pretty much what Indian college and hostel life had been in the 1980s and even 1970s. The rooms were as grimy, the professors as villainously egoistical, the gangsters as ruthless and squalid, their molls as innocent, the young men as horny, the young women as sassy and adventurous, their parents as patiently mature – and each one as sweetly, heartrendingly ambitious as you could possibly bear. Listen to this:

For Jishnu da, like many other Bihari students in Delhi, whether in DU, Jamia or JNU, the white government Ambassador car with the red beacon light on top and all sirens blaring, was the ultimate achievement. To have that kind of power, which they perceived as invincible, the leisurely feudal ambience with five or six servants attending to all their demands and the unimaginable riches which came with the job, not to mention the dowry which would automatically catapult them into the 10-15 lakh category. It would in a single stroke change the “profiles” of many. Their family back home in Patna, Gaya, Ranchi, Bhagalpur, Darbhanga and other small towns in Bihar made great sacrifices for them while they studied sometimes fifteen hours a day to change their “profiles”.
Siddharth Chowdhury himself apparently studied at Delhi University from 1993 to 1998 so perhaps this book is a bit about what he saw and did there. Shokeen Niwas, incidentally, was once a private home and now a hostel for young men located near the University North Campus, and Hriday Thakur, who tells the story, is an aspiring writer.
Like English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Day Scholar is a work of high literary quality which represents the seamy, un-exotic side of Indian life that some prefer to ignore and even disbelieve, dismissing these books as attention-getting exaggerations which just as many of us know they aren't.

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