Chowdhury's next novel Day Scholar (2010) saw a shift of setting from 1980s Patna to 1990s Delhi, with a new narrator called Hriday Thakur opening up a deeply male world of Bihari hostellers who live on the fringes of Delhi University and in the terrifying shadow of Zorawar Singh Shokeen, political broker and property dealer – and their landlord.
His most recent book, The Patna Manual of Style (2015), is a set of interlinked stories that returns us to Hriday's world a few years after Day Scholar with Chowdhury's usual comic acuity.
Chowdhury's fiction combines a joyful political incorrectness with deep affection for the characters who populate his world, the idealist, the eccentric and the downright dubious. He is possibly a combination of these things himself.
He is also quietly holding out against the onslaught of everything 21st century publishing tells writers they should do to gain readers: Facebook, Twitter, book launches and litfests. We agreed on an email interview, but he prefers to write by hand, and so I received his handwritten (photocopied) responses by courier. A couple of follow-up questions were answered on SMS.
Both your recurring protagonists Ritwik Ray and Hriday Thakur share their Bengali-from-Patna past, their Delhi University present and their writerly ambitions with you. What's easy and what's difficult about using autobiographical material?
The trajectory of my novels and stories is autobiographical. But autobiography can only be a take-off point for the imagination to soar, I feel. So 90% of my fiction is pure storytelling.
Fiction is the only medium through which I engage with the world. So a lot of other elements – politics, social commentary, various axes to grind – seep into the fiction as I go about stringing the reader and myself along.
In the first draft I rarely have a clue where the story would take me. By the second draft things become clearer. The difficult thing is when readers start imagining that all of it is autobiographical. But I have realised over the years that, too, gives pleasure to some readers.
In The Patna Manual of Style, Zakir Hussain College and Delhi University's English departments are populated with professors who teach at these places in real life, some thinly disguised, and some named. You once said that your parents in Patna tell people who ask that your books are “out of print”. How have friends and acquaintances who have read your books responded to becoming characters in them
My friends and family rarely become characters in my fiction. Once in a while I introduce a real person to establish locale or atmosphere, and more often than not it is meant as a tribute. So it is with my teachers in Zakir, like Lima Kanungo and Anuradha Marwah, or Vikram Seth or Sujit Mukherjee, when I talk about publishing in Death of a Proofreader. I never introduce a real person in my stories to spite them.
The wishes of my parents have now actually come true. Both Diksha at St. Martins and Patna Roughcut are out of print. Day Scholar will be, too, if Picador doesn't bring out a paperback soon.
How do you name your characters?
Very carefully. I collect names. I like names with a bit of vajan, as they say in Patna. With the right name half of your work is done. It is like casting in movies. Sometimes I feel I could have been another Lynn Stalmaster.
Your characters often live inside books and films, from Javed “would have been a friend of Ghalib's” Siddiqui in the first story in Diksha at St. Martin’s to Ritwik Ray in Patna Roughcut kissing Mira Verma “how James Dean had kissed Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause”. This carries on into The Patna Manual of Style: Hriday's girlfriend from Dhanbad (named Charulata, like the Satyajit Ray film) reminds him of Supriya Chowdhury in Meghe Dhaka Tara (a Ritwik Ghatak film); a Patna girl is named Sophia after Sophia Loren in Marriage, Italian Style and haunted by the film all her life; even Jishnu da, importer of blondes, expresses his angst by reciting the poetry of Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’. Other characters write imaginary books – Lawrence Lytton-Mobray's Purulia-set detective stories, Anjali Singh Nalwa's Tarn Taran, or my favourite, Ritwik Ray's Mao for the Misbegotten – but are described as reviewed in real journals, like EPW and Biblio. Is this all just your own fiction-haunted mind writ large, or do you really know a lot of people like this?
Well, I do know a lot of people who want to write, or to act or to direct movies, but have chosen to do something else for a living. Of course, most of them have artistic ambitions without the requisite talent. But it is a good thing. I don't mock it. I like writers and write about their world. It is an abiding theme. So to me an unpublished writer is as important as a published one.
Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ is a Patna speciality, and I, like many others of my generation, can quote him in chunks. It is like Pushkin and the Russians.
I know how hard it is to write a halfway-decent poem or a story, so writers would always have my compassion. But in the end, it is all fiction, the wisp of blue smoke curling away from my mind.
What books have been your strongest influences? And anything you read lately that you were struck by?
Well, Philip Roth, Hemingway, Arthur Miller, the early Naipaul, Salinger, Jack Kerouac have been significant influences. Lately I have enjoyed The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri a lot.
What do you re-read?
I re-read The Collected Stories of John Cheever, the first 49 stories of Hemingway’s, parts of Anna Karenina and A Sportsman's Sketches by Turgenev once in a while.
Your books have always declared your cinephilia. Do you have favourite filmmakers, or genres, or eras? Would you ever write a film script? And an important side question: did world cinema trivia really impress Patna girls?
Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Saeed Mirza have been huge influences. I also like the early stylish Godard, Sam Peckinpah, Billy Wilder and John Ford. I love cinema across genres. Also I can sit through anything by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen. I am sure I have missed out on twenty other names. If there is a special preference, it would be American cinema of the 1970s. Those magnificent Easy Riders and Raging Bulls.
No, I wouldn't write a screenplay, as cinema is a collaborative medium, and I am a lone wolf by inclination and training.
My experience is that the easiest way to lose a girl’s attention is to talk to her of world cinema or literature. But then I rarely meet the right kind of girls.
Ah, that question was inspired by the narrator in your long-ago story A Scene from Class Struggle in Patna, who says his movie trivia is good only for quizzing and impressing girls. But that will teach me to stop imagining that all your narrators are autobiographical! Moving on: your characters – even the exceptionally literate, film-society-going ones – inhabit a world that’s often violent, sometimes sleazy. Did you ever fear your readers might be repelled?
Some readers are always going to be repelled by the world I portray. Many are also bored stiff. But there is a tiny minority which will sit through anything that I write. God bless them.
One of the things that has always made your writing stand out for me, at least within Indian English fiction, is how frankly you deal with the presence of caste – its networks, stereotypes, battles – and the presence of sex. “A woman who shouts “Jai Mata Di” or “yes please”, or, better still, “aur tani jor se” in the throes of sexual congress is worth “pages of description of the furniture in the bedroom,” as you once put it. Does this unfetteredness come easily to you?
No, the unfetteredness does not come easily. It shouldn’t, either. As starlets in India traditionally say, they would wear a bikini if the role demands it – so it is with me. I will do the swimsuit round if the role demands it. Otherwise I am a wallflower by nature. As for caste, it really can't be avoided if you are writing fiction in India.
Is Delhi a kind of exile from Patna for your characters? And for you? Do you feel part of a Bihari cultural diaspora?
In some ways, yes, it is kind of like an exile. But then I do Delhi also. I seriously started to write only when I came to Delhi University.
Do you hang out with other writers? Do you discuss your writing with anyone while it's happening?
I am afraid I don't hang out much. I do not have the time. My first reader is usually my wife. Sometimes I do share my finished work with Pankaj Mishra and Amitava Kumar. Pankaj especially has been a great support over the years.
You don’t do the litfest circuit. Do readers ever write to you? Any interesting responses?
Sometimes I do get email. Mostly of hate, but once in a while of love, too. In Chandigarh, at the only literary festival that I have attended, I was accosted by two ladies who said that they had come all the way from Canada to meet me. Turns out they wanted to meet Siddharth Chowdhury the painter. Talk about taking a wrong turn.
You have a day job in a publishing house. What does your work day look like? Does the publishing life intersect with the writerly life?
I think my day job as a publisher certainly enriches my writing. I get to read a lot of stuff I wouldn't normally pick up otherwise.
I believe you do all your writing by hand. How does the rewriting and editing happen?
I usually write the first three drafts of all my stories or sections in a novel by hand. With a yellow Staedtler pencil in small spiral-bound notebooks which I carry everywhere in my satchel. The fourth draft is usually typed out by my wife when she finds the time. Afterwards I tinker with it for months on the computer, mostly working on the timing. For instance, of the two stories that book-end Patna Manual, The Importer of Blondes took over two years to write, and Death of a Proofreader, close to a year.
You've published two short story collections and two novels. But Patna Roughcut, for instance, though called a novel, is as much a series of episodes about overlapping characters, as The Patna Manual of Style, which is called “stories”. If publishing didn't need these categories, would you describe your books differently?
I see Patna Roughcut, Day Scholar and The Patna Manual of Style as part of one big novel that I am working towards. In that sense it is unfinished. Readers can read it in any way they want. As individual stories or as short novels which are part of a larger whole. As long as they get it, it is fine by me. Labels are anyway only a marketing tool. I am meanwhile working on a long story about Sudama Pathak of Patna Roughcut, called The Prince of Patna.
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