What was it like growing up in a hicktown in India’s most infamous state in the ‘dreaded’ 70s? The same time when the Naxal movement was at its peak and at large? Encountering the Emergency, while the Bhumihars and the Yadavs were (they still are) at each other’s throat? Where social conflict between the feudals and the landless was a way of life — and mastering the art of murder was far easier than learning the ABC of English at Holy Child School?
After a flurry of chic chick-lit novels where heroines down fine wine without getting their lips wet, Avijit Ghosh — senior journalist with The Times of India — comes out with a brat-lit set in the murky interiors of Bihar, a onehorse (but many bandicoots-infested) town with a solitary restaurant where a chicken cutlet costs Rs 2.50, a cup of espresso coffee Re 1, and where teenaged boys lose their virginity during mating encounters with goats (“although donkeys were definitely a better lay”). <b1>
Ghosh grew up in Bihar, and the book is peppered with characters, events, and even national, spasmodic turning points that he “observed, experienced, heard and imagined”. His narrator-cum-protagonist, 13-year-old Anirban Roy, spends four years of his formative life in Ganesh Nagar (a fictional town) that sums up all the paradoxes in the world: “Every student appearing for the school finals was accompanied by four experts who wrote the answers outside before they were smuggled in… Buying a train ticket was uber uncool because only cowards paid to travel… Dating a woman was unheard of but mating was commonplace.”
Anirban’s father is a police officer in mufti — he’s part of the intelligence network on the lookout for Naxals stalking the state. The 13-year-old lives a life less ordinary because he’s ‘privileged’ and comes from an educated family; he is, therefore, in a position to be a neutral (“In our class, six boys were already married. Another four had either s****ed a girl or a goat”).
Bandicoots in the Moonlight (you don’t come across many of them, and the Naxals are too much part of the atmospherics — rather than figure among the retinue of characters — to be referred to as bandicoots) is about various frissons of the Wonder Years Gone Somewhat Awry, distilled in the great Bihar churn factory: friendship and hatred, politics and religion, loyalty and betrayal, activism and infatuation, lust and longing and what have you.
There is a certain half-baked — yet raw and in your face — sexuality that probably comes with being young. There’s the ‘membership’ where members are measured and where the “bigger guys would flaunt their stuff around as you would a pet snake”. There’s also voyeurism: watching the sun-bronzed ‘potter’s wife’ bathe, and getting the corner of the roof “a little wet and sticky by the time I left”. Once you get over the salacious bits, there is also serious, slice-of-life (circa, Bihar, 1970s) stuff: caste/honour killings, female infanticide, the upheaval in the students’ union movement, Sanjay Gandhi’s reign of terror, the police force’s functioning mechanism etc. The book’s 237 pages are divided into 37 chapters, and almost all them are complete stories.
There’s no danger of fatigue, and Ghosh — smartly — cuts to the chase without much preamble or afterthought. As an afterthought, most of the episodic chapters are rounded off with The Wonder Years kind of wisdom: “The moments of education are swift and sudden, and often have little to do with books and teachers” or, “…rapists, just like rioters, are not ‘other’ people. They too are within us, among us” or “…sometimes life becomes its own spin doctor. And if you don’t watch out, it can spin you out of control.”
Trifle trite, you’d agree. But then, it’s coming of age. And it’s Bihar. So, in a strange — not sublime — sort of way, it works well. I’d say the same for the rest of the book.