by Anu Kumar
Admittedly, The Patna Manual of Style is hard to describe, even harder to like. But it is easy to love–travel through its pages and you will see Delhi as it was a decade ago, with its mentions of what the North Campus looked like and perhaps still does, how the winter sunlight slinks gently into an apartment, how you can catch a glimpse of the Qutb Minar from a South Delhi barsati, the traffic around Sarai Kale Khan, the atmosphere around Connaught Circus, and you will automatically fall in step with Hriday Thakur, the aspiring writer from Patna who has loved and not lost, and somehow made a life for himself in Delhi, says Anu Kumar
Though Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style (Aleph Book Company, 2015) includes the word “stories” in its title, it has to be read like a novel, with the stories following one after another. And while these stories are not arranged chronologically, and even the narrative voices vary, it is only when one reads the final story that there is some sense of completion–almost. A novel, after all, should never be complete; its incompleteness must linger with the reader.
Hriday Thakur appears in several of these stories. Read in some order, he has just lost his job, and some time before this he has lost the girl he loved. He even loses his mentor but at the end he does find happiness of a sort, with a job and married to a woman he loves. In Chowdhury’s novel, Day Scholar, which preceded this, Hriday is the wide-eyed and impressionable young university student from Patna, in-part bewildered and blissful–whether it is because of the reckless violence his landlord Zoravar Singh Shokeen is capable of, or due to Hriday’s own obsession with a young girl. But in these stories–though there is a certain writerly detachment about him, given his own ambitions to be a writer–he is more confident, worldly-wise and aware of his own attractiveness to women.
Siddharth Chowdhury has said elsewhere that in effect, all his novels are works in progress towards perhaps a monumental work, and The Patna Manual of Style has people from his other preceding books. RItwick Ray, the Patna writer who is a role model to aspiring writers like Hriday himself, appeared in Patna Roughcut, as did Mira Verma, and both make guest appearances here. Jishnu da from Day Scholar appears in the first story, where he is the eponymous “Importer of Blondes” and has lost his heart to one of them. Hriday for his part has lost his job and while wary of this chance re-encounter with Jishnu, is keen to drown his sorrows, and so hears his story out. It is in the narrating of the story that Jishnu da finds himself becoming quite the hero, and the story’s end is a revelation.
There are people who randomly appear in these stories and then take centre-stage in some other pieces–which of course makes the labelling of this book even more confusing. For instance, one realizes only after reading the story, “Tipple Cake” that Sadaf Abdali, who is mentioned here, is the narrator of another story, “Goat-Getting” or that while Jishnu da may have vanished from these pages soon after the first story, he has somehow appeared as narrator again in yet another.
But these stories evoke place in a hauntingly smoke-filled manner. “Delhi in December could well be Paris in spring time,” muses Hriday to himself as he steps out of his office after being fired. And in the dimly lit Volga bar, Jishnu da and he also see an Israeli couple, clearly besotted with each other. The one story that did jar somewhat was “Autobiography”, where the writer makes an appearance and is quite clearly writing about himself–but this is also Hriday Thakur’s story in many ways and then the latter has also appeared in several other stories here, so this one story appears something of a metafictional intrusion.
Some of the other stories are narrated by the women who have made up Hriday’s life from his past to his present. Charulata in “Changing of the Guard” is the woman he has been in love with since college. Still jobless and desperate in love, he goes to meet her family in Dhanbad in the hope of foiling her parents’ plans to “arrange” a marriage for her. In the title story, Hriday moves back to Delhi, to the world of academia and has a job in Zakir Hussein college, when Anjali Nalwa, a former college classmate, and now a novelist with some success, turns up to read her story–a story that acquired some controversy–and an old relationship appears to be briefly rekindled again. While all these stories have an irrepressible, jaunty note that just as easily mingles with the darkness in them, showing Chowdhury’s immense writing skills, two in particular, “Sophia Loren” and “Tipple Cake” have that lingering after-taste of sadness. Hriday recollects his old crush Sophia, who had been a senior in school, a girl who had a zest for life and in the end had settled for a korfball coach.
But as with the story that began this novel, it is the last, “Death of a Proof-Reader”, that is one of the better stories in this collection. In this story, Samuel Crown recounts little-known details of his life to Imogen, a scholar—about his Scottish ancestry, his knowledge of the world of Delhi’s publishing firms in Dariyaganj, and his devotion to proofing. Imogen happens to be an accidental witness when Crown, having succumbed to a sudden heart attack, is being buried.
Admittedly, The Patna Manual of Style is hard to describe, even harder to like. But it is easy to love–travel through its pages and you will see Delhi as it was a decade ago, with its mentions of what the North Campus looked like and perhaps still does, how the winter sunlight slinks gently into an apartment, how you can catch a glimpse of the Qutb Minar from a South Delhi barsati, the traffic around Sarai Kale Khan, the atmosphere around Connaught Circus, and you will automatically fall in step with Hriday Thakur, the aspiring writer from Patna who has loved and not lost, and somehow made a life for himself in Delhi.