In Indian English literature, somehow, Bihar has been the personal territory of male writers from the region; many have written versions of their own quintessential journey from provincial angst to cosmopolitan coolness, such as Amitava Kumar in Home Products and Siddharth Chowdhury in Patna Roughcut. The latest to join the league of Bihari boys in English fiction is Hriday Thakur, leading man of Chowdhury’s third book, a collection of nine short stories called The Patna Manual of Style.
“Go to any party, in any country, on any moonlit terrace of the world, the best dressed man is always the one from Patna,” boasts a young Thakur, wearing black brogues and a burgundy tie with a single knot, to his college sweetheart. Not every man can quote Dinkar and Dostoevsky, with a Patna lilt, ‘that made you run your fingers delicately through your hair while you spoke’. No man has a stronger sexual aura, one which makes even the White girls speak to Thakur in a deeper voice. No man makes love better: ‘He could open your bra with two fingers while whispering Andrew fucking Marvell in your ears.’ And, of course, no man can love you more.
The book begins with the love Jai Shankar Sharma, or Jishnuda, the quintessential Bihari friend who will manage everything for you, has for Anna Kuchma from Ukraine. Jishnuda is one of the jugaad-experts who have taken over the event management business in post-liberalisation Delhi, and Anna is one of the Soviet girls he and his business partner import to belly-dance at private parties. Like all great loves, Jishnuda’s is one-sided. He watches her sip her talumein soup at Berco’s, wanting to dab the corners of her lips after each swallow. After watching her do padmasana in the winter sun, he washes her sweatpants in Genteel with his own clothes. In the end, he sacrifices his love to set his beloved free.
Similarly, aspiring writer and civil service hopeful Hriday Thakur loses Charulata Roy, a Delhi University student from Dhanbad who would have been the quintessential writer’s wife, to a civil engineer at Tata Steel and drowns his memories in large pegs of Peter Scot. It is the same trajectory with Ritwik Ray, Patna Roughcut’s struggling writer hero, who returns here as literary idol for the likes of Thakur. Ray has a generation of young men aspiring to his Hemingway beard and gleaming black Yezdi, but he has failed at forgetting Mira Varma, his great lost love, the dusky beauty in Cotton Emporium saris and kohl-lined eyes. His story is deeply-rooted in reality, as any evening spent drinking Old Monk with a Bihari man of a certain vintage will reveal, but it is also one that has exhausted its charm. More interesting is the tale of the small town boy with no one to love in the big city. The protagonist of ‘Damsel in Distress’ is a young man recently arrived in Delhi from Hazaribagh to do an MPhil on Balban’s revenue system, ‘the mofussil slowness [clinging] to him like a burr’. Lacking the courage to make a move on girls he is attracted to, he becomes a lurker, satisfying himself with the occasional sight of a bra strap in the college corridor, or stalking girls on Facebook at night, when he is bored of Notes from the Underground. In what is the most powerful scene in the book, he finds a teenage couple having sex in the infamous Indraprastha Park and beats up the boy, making the girl do uthak-baithak. “This is a family park. My children play here,” he screams at her, after the boy has fled in terror.
As we meet the characters that make up the bubble of copywriter-cum-struggling novelist Thakur—the seditious novelist, the Marxist professor, the subaltern artist— Chowdhury frequently seems to mock them for their self-indulgence. ‘“Well, the poor will always be with us,” Swastika di said and filled her glass with the Chardonnay that Charulata had brought as hostess present,’ goes the description of an intimate brunch hosted in a house lined with Marxist literature and Urdu poetry.
But, like its characters, The Patna Manual of Style is mostly stuck in the past. The cover illustration features a Connaught Place panorama which boasts that cult dive Volga, and the characters drive Premier Padminis, read Turgenev and take photos on Hotshot automatics. With the MBA degree trying to push the civil service success off the Bihari middle-class pedestal, and Facebook replacing Marx as the primary preoccupation of the youth, there must be new stories to be told of the great old journey. Why isn’t anyone writing about Patna boys arriving in a Delhi of glittering malls and hipster villages? Indian English fiction owes the Bihari Boy a new narrative, ideally one in which he isn’t pining for litti-chokha.
(Snigdha Poonam is a Delhi-based freelance writer)