Go to sleep, may your sweet dreams come true
Just lay back in my arms for one more night 
I’ve this crazy old notion that calls me sometimes 
Saying this one’s the love of our lives.

’Cause I know a love that will never grow old 
And I know a love that will never grow old.

— From "A Love That Will Never Grow Old", Emmylou Harris

May 25, 2019. I was on a flight to Kochi. I had expected a quiet flight, but there was that one bawling baby that somehow finds its way to all the flights I travelled in. As I looked around to find the baby, I spotted an old gentleman who seemed to have lost his way. I went up to him and asked him if he needed help. He showed me his boarding pass and asked me to assist him in locating his seat, which turned out to be the one right next to mine.

As we exchanged pleasantries, he told me, over the screams of the annoying baby, that he was flying to Kochi to attend his college reunion. He was going to meet people who had been a big part of his life 50 years ago. “I hope my crush attends it too!” he told me, fondly adding stories about college and all his friends. He wished he could go back in time, and perhaps correct what he now calls the worst mistakes in his life. But then, he confessed, these were the mistakes that brought him to where he was now.

“Once we were lovers, but that was long ago...”

Spaces are strange – the impact of the ones we have occupied never quite dies, and, more often than not, we discover ourselves in a new light when we revisit those spaces and all the memories associated with it. Such is the journey in Devapriya Roy’s latest novel, Friends From College.

Charulata Ghosh, or Lata, as she calls herself, and Shomiron Banerjee, or Ronny, had dated in college, where they were usually thought of as a couple who would stay together for a long, long time. Twenty years later, however, they turn out to have split, going on to become a management consultant and a filmmaker, respectively.

In deceptively simple prose that uses observation and detail to re-create a distinctive time and space, Friends From College tells us the story of Lata and Ronny, and of all their other college friends – Aadhuri, Bappaditya, Tilottama, Vikram and more – as they come back to Calcutta twenty years after college. Writing in the third person to capture multiple perspectives – including those of Lata’s mother Manjulika Ghosh and some of her other relatives – Roy flips between the past and the present with aplomb as well as effect.

Friends From College is Roy’s third novel, after The Vague Woman’s Handbook in 2011, and The Weight Loss Club in 2015. The novel originally appeared in serialised form in The Telegraph newspaper. When asked about her experience on writing a serialised piece, Roy said, “What is most fascinating to me about the process of serialising a novel is how there is no do-over. You cannot go back and restructure, kill someone off, or redeem someone else.”

No danger of a single story here

The point of the serialised novel, besides making for a unique reading experience, is, of course, that episode usually has a beginning, a middle, and an end in its own right. There are, therefore, many mini climaxes in the course of Friends From College, and multiple stories, which get their own episodes, so to speak, nestling within the larger narrative. This, in turn, means that every character in the novel gets great attention – for even if they are minor in the larger scheme of things, they are still important players in their specific segments.

The pace builds up the possibilities, slowly revealing the pivotal points with each passing chapter. The climax is reserved for the very last line – although the tension over the possibility of rekindling the embers of the old romance stays alive throughout. With the action constantly shuttling between the past and the present, era-appropriate language and forms of communication act as the compass in this novel that keeps the reader from getting lost in time.

Perhaps the most skilful aspect of Roy’s writing is that it gives the reader the space to construct the story for themselves, based on their understanding of the relationship between the characters. She also maintains a fine balance between showing and telling, thus turning what could have been a boring amalgamation of details into a captivating collage of scenes and encounters.

While the drama and plot race along, there is a larger theme of love and relationships that Roy builds throughout – each individual relationship seems to teach us something or the other. Each of them has been constructed uniquely and sensitively, and the close simulation of reality in this work of fiction makes it tempting for the young reader to even use this novel as a handbook. Whether Roy intended this or not, it is still one of the (welcome) outcomes of this book.

Friends From College

Friends From College, Devapriya Roy, Westland Books.