Tag Archives: novels

Book Review: Siddharth Chowdhury’s Day Scholar

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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.

Review: Viva Santiago by Colin Fernandes

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At the outset, Viva Santiago has a lot going for it. There are its pleasingly psychedelic cover and long lunch-friendly 137 pages, for a start. More importantly, there is its promise, as can be deduced from the synopsis, to be that rare thing in Indian literary fiction: a jovial, light-hearted read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

But then, being confronted with the groan-inducing email forward cliché – “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in a well-preserved body; rather, to slide in sideways, mojito in one hand, Mary Jane in the other, screaming whoo hoo… what a ride!” – that is its first paragraph swiftly sets the tone for the rest of the book. In an odd way, this novel both tries too hard and doesn’t try at all.

Alonso Gonzalez, a typical college student in Delhi, finds himself taking an impromptu trip back to his Goan hometown with Yvette, a Canadian woman who claims to have known his deceased grandfather. Grandpa was infamously devilish: perpetually stoned, surrounded by women, addicted to Bob Dylan, and into heavy pseudo-religious tripping (and vehemently blasphemous, of course). And as it turns out, he also seems to have left a treasure hunt of sorts for Alonso, which he embarks on and solves with unlikely ease.

There is a convenience to the plot that makes it completely unrealistic. The mystery is over quickly, with absolutely no room for suspense (and it’s no spoiler to say that everyone becomes privy to what the treasure is but the reader). Way too many deus ex machinae show up – from Yvette, whom our protagonist inevitably hooks up with (laughably, for a book that’s supposedly about hedonism, in a very chaste manner), to the shady character whose mysterious gift sets the whole ball rolling. Yes, life is often stranger than fiction, and with its random drizzling of photographs, Viva Santiago seems meant to be read as autobiography. But bad fiction is not strange, just boring.

Fernandes has a good feel of laid-back student types, and draws Alonso and his friends reasonably convincingly. He also has a flair for macabre and stoner humour, that terribly unoriginal first paragraph notwithstanding. But there is no real arc of logic to the way in which arbitrary anecdotes about life in Delhi and Goa are thrown together. Plus, there is a boastful undercurrent to the book which erases, if it were ever intentioned or present, the kind of nostalgia and broader concerns that underpin the best memoirs and memoir-like fiction. But like everything else about this book, even the self-absorption isn’t fully-realised. There were several points at which I wondered whether I was reading a casual blog post or an actual book.

It’s rather little saving grace, but Viva Santiago is the kind of novel that only makes one think about how disappointing it is after breezing through it. Perhaps that’s too kind a statement for such an unfledged read, but to its credit, it’s decently-written enough to irritate the reader above all else only with the failure to be the supremely cool novel it could have been. And this is a pity – one suspects that Fernandes is actually a fine author, but lets himself coast by on the bare minimum of effort. The note at the end of the book acknowledging that it was written in three weeks confirms this.

Which makes me wonder: is Viva Santiago, the book, just like all the anecdotes contained within it? Perhaps the challenge of writing it was for exactly what one gets the feeling Grandpa’s and Alonso’s shenanigans are supposed to amount to: impressing someone who’s being chatted up. In which case, this girl, at least, isn’t charmed.

An edited version appeared in yesterday’s The New Sunday Express.