‘Go to any party, in any country, on any moonlit terrace of the world, the best dressed man is always the one from Patna.’
Patna is a dystopian city of sorts. Some may not agree with this statement. But has always has been a city on the cliff of dystopia. An island of sanity in a state where lawlessness runs amok, it has not remained untouched by the progress of the 21st century. But this progress brings with it a collective schizophrenia, a blind mash-up of sheer ambition and endemic inequality.
Patna has of late seen a spurt in the number of books which write about the city as a living, breathing character of its own. Amitava Kumar in his A matter of rats portrayed the underbelly of the city, which was a potent and trippy mix of chaos, wit, the macabre and unforeseen cruelty. In various forms of literature Patna’s citizens have been compared to rats and pigeons trapped in invisible cages which they can’t see or detect.
Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna manual of style is however far more intimate and takes a less macro perspective of the city than Amitava Kumar’s epiphany laced novel. It instantly segues into an unsentimental exploration of its characters inner lives. There is a cocksureness to Chowdhury’s writing which many people may find irresistible.
As the novel begins, Chowdhury sketches the outlines of what is to be the underlying glue of this collection, the dynamics of belonging and not belonging in two separate worlds as represented by Patna and Delhi. The book speaks of a world where the Indians we are all familiar with live but at the same time it is a world which hasn’t been reflected accurately in fiction. India tends to be romanticised; Chowdhury’s book however is an unsparing but gentle look at the sense of dislocation people who ride with their feet in two boats feel.
Chowdhury paints a marvellous picture of an India still undergoing a transition of sorts by virtue of his observing skills and the fluidity of his pen. His wry and precise observations sometime end up subsuming the tinge of heartbreak which the story is blended with.
The central protagonist of the book is Hriday Thakur, a typical brat found in the alleyways of every city. He is ambitious in life. His character feels and reads like a real human being. Hriday not surprisingly is an aspiring writer who meets many people in his journey to becoming a writer. The characters are over the top and you can imagine them having walked off from the set of an advertising commercial into the book.
There are pithy one liners some of which crackle and sometimes fizzle. One memorable line is. “Still a virgin, sir. Entirely unpublished.” There are swear words and ribald humour aplenty as well. This is not a book for the politically correct brigade who might be turned off by the scatological humour and prolific use of cuss words. There is food as well, likhi choka in ample quantities washed down by a generous helping of scotch.
The plot is driven by the protagonist Hriday’s obssesive fascination with women. To quote the story he is ‘the literature junkie, aspiring writer, inveterate lover of women and rain’. He is libidinous but not a Casanova.
The women in the novel are people you can identify with. Regular women next door who have their own sets of dreams, hopes and aspirations which sometimes do not overlap with Hriday’s burning ambition and life plans. Some of the women in the story, the protagonist falls in love with are the sort of 27 hour loves which subsume a boy when he is yet to become a man.
One of the characters in the story says, “I want the man who, if he can’t write like Auden, has at least read all of Auden”. The female character which shines through is Hriday’s wife Chitra who is in equal measures indignant and in equal measure tender and loving. Hriday’s need for a muse is explained through these stirring lines “to keep writing I needed Charulata and to keep Charulata I had to keep writing”.
At a mere 142 odd pages The Patna manual of style is a short read. At times the book imbibes the verb of “Manohar Kahaniyaan”. Many who would read this book would probably want more because once you get immersed in it, it comes a rude shock when 140 odd pages later, the story is over.
The feeling one is left is the same feeling college students experience at their farewells. A bittersweet feeling which merges seamlessly with the evening sun. The cover illustration by Dyuti Mittal is beautifully done and invites the reader into the world created by Chowdhury. It’s a world you should go to. One could do this novel a disservice by calling it a coming of age story, because it’s not. Like the novel this review is also going to be laconic. A long, verbose review would probably not be apt for a short and elegant read like The Patna manual of style. This is a book all book lovers should not miss out on reading.