Rs 250 pp 164
Sitting across the table with Siddharth Chowdhury, you would think he's an editor at an academic publishing house (which he is) with an interest in languid poetry (which he doesn't) and has never opened a 'gentleman's magazine' (his early stories came out in the venerable Debonair).
"Well, that was a bit awkward, I guess, showing it at home," says Chowdhury. "Nothing drastic, just awkward," says the 36-year-old author of Day Scholar, a stunning book set in early 90s Delhi that seamlessly juxtaposes the poetry of everyday violence with that of bright-eyed tenderness that only the young wear. And all this, Chowdhury laces with a dark comic fluid that the reader ends up laughing at even though he knows it's not funny.
"I'm very autobiographical," he says not at all sounding like a walking-talking tautology. "This is the time and place I know well. I've been there myself, 1992 Zakir Husain College, living in a hostel with friends."
At the centre of the many concentric circles of Day Scholar is Hriday, the narrator whose desire to be a writer may have been something his creator would have empathised with some 18 years ago. He shares his lodgings and his life at the Shokeen Niwas with Jishnu-da, a scrawny "MA (Previous) student from Bihar", a "true Bhumihar" senior knocking at the doors of goonhood and Pranjal Sharma, Hriday's "fellow Kadam Kuan [in Patna] gallant and childhood buddy".
The slim book is many things: it's a grow up-and-smell-the-real world novel; with almost all the characters converging from outside the capital to be under the big seedy lights of Delhi, it's a diaspora novel; it's also a campus novel.
"It's not an aspirational novel," says Chowdhury, his hands moving about with an energy of their own. "It'll disappoint the reader who may pick it up to get a slice of life or..." What he means is that it's not a Chetan Bhagat novel. It's not for the pimply teenager aspiring to get into an IIT. Chowdhury's story doesn't hold back and, in his inimitable manner of social commentary, he rocks the reader between the brutal and the comic.
The very first page starts with Zorawar Singh Shokeen, once-upon-a-time student, who is now a man with raging hormones and is under the patronage of the likes of H K L Bhagat. We see Hriday, Pranjal and Jishnu-da watching through a small gap between the doors, their benefactor Zorawar sitting "astride a large, naked Punjabi woman in her late thirties who had buttocks that even Asha Parekh would be proud of".
A few paragraphs later, Chowdhury doesn't go limp on us: "'He has taken her once in the ****, then in her mouth, now he is doing her ass," Pranjal informed me in a cool matter-of-fact way after taking a long Navy Cut drag."
This could have been dangerously getting lost in Rushdie territory, lining up one sexual romp after the other and using Hindi words to create the illusion of novelty. But Chowdhury has something altogether different - and brilliant - in mind. In the same metronomic tone, he switches from rough coitus to sweet nostalgia to sickeningly banal deaths.
"I knew it was going to be a dark kind of book. But I wanted to maintain a realistic tone, a stylised realism throughout the book," says the soft-spoken Chowdhury. As he writes in the chapter Metal Fatigue - each chapter surviving both as a stand-alone story and as a continuing tale of Hriday's observations - "'That is all very well, Hriday, but I do hope you will not try to suck the bachi's alphonsos once in a while,' Zorawar said to me in his inimitable eye-squinting manner, with his special ability to go from the ribald to the chilling in a blink." That would be an exact description of the power Chowdhury wields.
Day Scholar could also have teetered off the edge and become a 'nostalgia novel', providing enough cultural late 80s-early 90s confetti for readers to simply read the book as a confirmatory document of their own memories: the half-opened Brilliant Tutorial guide books packages, the Graviera safari suit lengths, the Soviet editions of Gorky's Mother... But Chowdhury's detailings are cinematic, full of close-ups and long shots without the laziness of middle shots - whether it's Jishnu-da's discoloured Tweety Pie Bermuda shorts, Vinodini Khan's red bandhini chunri, or her turquoise blue Atlas mountain bike.
"I don't like descriptions. They bore me. One should never be boring," says Chowdhury letting his half-empty glass of sweet lime stare back at him. "The writer's craft is actually more like an actor's craft, with the writer taking up multiple roles," says the admirer of Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone and who would have wanted to become a filmmaker weren't it for the fact that "writing is so much easier, you just pick up a pen and I'm not much of a team person".
Day Scholar, his third book, was completed only when he started getting "desperate". "I write in a panic," says our finest contemporary imagist. Chowdhury shows the throbbing life that language can inject into characters thus heightening all that is real.
Taxi Driver: Paul Schrader's creation Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran in 70s America, takes to night-cabbing to fight insomnia. But life on streets make him more violent.