Day Scholar makes you laugh – in the good way – by the end of its very first paragraph, surely an auspicious start to any book. Which isn’t to say that this slim novel, Siddharth Chowdhury’s third, is exactly a rib-tickler, though peppered as it is with moments of great hilarity, that could certainly be at least one accurate description of this notable coming-of-age tale set in a Delhi boys’ hostel in 1992.
Hriday Thakur, aged 17 and a recent NCC cadet from Patna, lives in the squalid Shokeen Niwas boarding house, along with his best friend Pranjal and a cast of characters pumped full of mediocre expectations, masculine aggression and various types of angst – not least among them the incumbent demigod Jishnu Da, to whom everyone else defers. Everyone, that is, except their landlord, the notorious and vindictive Zorawar Singh Shokeen. The boys pass their time in the typical fashion of all impoverished students, scraping through exams, mastering the art of sexy cigarette-lighting, and occasionally discreetly watching as Shokeen uses their rooms as an assignation point with his current mistress, Madam Midha. Hriday, however, has aspirations – he wakes at 5a.m. every morning to work on drafts of short stories, mined from his own experiences.
But things are grittier here than at most hostels. For one, Shokeen is known to be murderous when desired. Even the students’ showy fights and curse slinging carry undercurrents of bigotry based on community, caste and economic background. This is a casually violent world in which shots are sounded to create a scene and knives are carried as a matter of routine. Women are seen only as sex objects, sisters or significant others. When Hriday is roped in to tutor Midha’s school-going daughter in her studies, he understands for the first time the complexity of the other gender, something for which he very nearly pays for with his life.
As far as coming-of-age novels go, this one stands out because of its significant lack of sentimentality, which in some ways is a rather refreshing perspective. In fact, the only points at which Chowdhury falters in this otherwise thoroughly engaging telling are when things take a turn in this precise direction. When Hriday describes his first love Anjali, a senior enamoured of the literary life who undergoes a complete physical and attitudinal makeover in order to fit in with Delhi’s writing circles, that’s exactly what it is – just a description, dull, tinged with some amount of cynicism and with very little nostalgia. And though, like any student living away from a happy home, he suffers from pangs of longing for his parents, there is something unconvincing about this too – some leap of evolution between being the son of a Billie Holiday-loving professor and becoming a Shokeen Niwas resident that doesn’t quite ring consistent.
That Hriday is a writer, ostensibly of some repute later in life, isn’t very interesting. It lends an air of pompousity to the narrative, and detracts from the daily drudgery and conjunctures of his life as a student. Day Scholar fares best, unlike the wards of Shokeen Niwas, when it doesn’t take itself so seriously. When Hriday loosens up on the whole writer-as-observer thing and actually participates in what is, by any standards, an eventful college life, the novel sparkles. In this aspect, Chowdhury is absolutely like his protagonist – it is very much in the everyday harshness of life in Shokeen Niwas, the ordinary heroism with which Hriday decides to rescue his pupil and her mother from a sordid fate and the dirty humour and myriad commonplace shenanigans of his cohorts that the stuff and substance of a great story are to be found. The rest, sadly, is overkill.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.