RK Narayan and more: The flavour of small towns in our novels

  • Amitava Kumar
  • Updated: Jan 03, 2016 09:54 IST
The frontrunners : Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August challenged the staidness of colonial English; a few years later, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy spoke in a voice that had all the transparency of a Hindustani novel.

Politicians offer propaganda in a loud voice. Ditto for pundits. I love the small voice of literature. As Joan Didion said, we tell ourselves stories in order to live.

The writing about small towns or about provincial life is appealing because it too brings the gift of small particularities. RK Narayan built his entire career around it. However, a cultivation of quaintness in his fiction kept me at a distance. Then the kaleidoscope turned and, at least for me, the picture changed with Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, a wildly comic account of a metropolitan Indian, a young bureaucrat, in a mofussil town. And the language! The staidness of colonial English tickled, harassed, abused, and caressed by an irreverent writer for whom there were no sacred cows.

A few years passed and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy landed with a suitable thud, a grand achievement and not only for its portrait of life in the provinces. Set in a town in Uttar Pradesh, it spoke in a voice that possessed all the nearness and transparency of a novel written in Hindustani. In its pages, English no longer sounded as a sociolect designed to set the elite apart from the unwashed masses.

I grew up in Patna, where Vikram Seth also attended school, and one recent work of fiction that celebrates Seth’s connection to my hometown is Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style. Chowdhury has woven all of his wonderful fiction around Patna and its scattered diaspora. The same characters wander in and out of the pages of his novels, they emerge from Kadam Kuan in Patna and stumble into classrooms in Delhi University, and sit down for a dose of litti-chokha and mutton at Yadavji Litti Centre in Paharganj.

The small town in 2015: In The Patna Manual of Style, Siddharth Chowdhury has woven wonderful fiction around Patna; In Ishq Mein Shahar Hona, Ravish Kumar explains that Delhi entered his consciousness through an image: women in nighties on balconies; And most recently, Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma presents the voice of the small town and also the tumult of the big city.

Siddharth is a friend of mine but the reason I possibly dislike him a bit, and this is pure envy speaking, is because his writing is pure voice. I don’t just mean the Patna lilt but also the confidence and a specific kind of cosmopolitanism. We see the hinterland populated with small-town managers of jugaad, those who wrestle fate and ultimately fail, and also others who have imagination (and maybe even ambition, if that’s not too strong a word) borrowed from films and fiction. These latter could become writers like Chowdhury himself, except they wouldn’t know how to write about sex with such bravado. Open Chowdhury’s Day Scholar to its first page and read about Zorawar Singh Shokeen, landlord of Shokeen Niwas, in flagrant sexual congress with Mrs Midha, a section officer in Delhi University.

Goodbye, all genteel affectations! Farewell, Narayan!

The point is not sex, it is seeing. Seeing with the eyes of someone from the margins. NDTV’s Ravish Kumar has a new book of brief fictional pieces in Hindi, Ishq Mein Shahar Hona. Ravish explains that when he arrived from Patna, Delhi entered his consciousness as an image: on the balconies of the buildings visible from the street, women in nighties using washing machines to do laundry. India Gate or Ghalib came to Ravish later, or didn’t properly come at all. Instead, it was the humble nightie that introduced him to his new urban reality.

What does that nameless, middle-class woman using the washing machine on her balcony have on her mind?

A question like that motivates the latest novel I read, Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma. The titular Mrs Sharma is in her thirties; born in Meerut, she now lives in Delhi, where she takes the Metro to work every day. One day at the Hauz Khas station she approaches a well-dressed young man. An affair begins. She doesn’t tell the man at first that she is married or about her teenage son. Slowly she discovers a new self and a new city. The novel is narrated in her voice. This is the voice of the ordinary, the quotidian, even the banal – and it is to Kapur’s credit that often she makes this voice sing.

The dominant imagination doesn’t admit sex, except as scandal, in domestic spaces. This is particularly true of spaces inhabited by married women. In using a language that is idiomatically Indian, and recognisably middle class, Mrs Sharma provides a woman’s plain testimony. Kapur has performed an act of literary ventriloquism, and only rarely does she slip into parody. We have seen such performances in Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father, even in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger; this novel also has a strand in common with an eye-opening story like Mohan Sikka’s The Railway Aunty which told us about Delhi housewives hiring gigolos.

But Kapur’s protagonist is her own person. We accompany Mrs Sharma on the path of her discovery and her doom only because her voice is real. In Mrs Sharma, I heard the voice of the small town of her birth and also the tumult of the big city where she lives. Kapur is a writer not only with an eye for detail: she also uses her ear. And because Mrs Sharma sounds real, she is revolutionary.

The Bookist is a monthly column

From HT Brunch, January 3, 2016

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