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Evoking The Ambience of A Place And Its People


Meenakshi Mukherjee

PATNA ROUGHCUT
By Siddharth Chowdhury
Picador, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 186, Rs. 250.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 7 July 2006

“Trinidad was small , remote and unimportant, and we knew we could not hope to read in books of the life we saw about us”. Replace ‘Trinidad’ with ‘Patna’ in that statement by Naipaul, and that is precisely what we felt a generation ago growing up there. Patna was not all that small or remote – capital of a large state before it was truncated, prominently paced in the railway as well the river map of India. Certainly not unimportant because every child knew by heart its heritage from the time Emperor Ashoka issued his rock edicts from Pataliputra to the time it gave India its first President. But a place does not become real just because it appears in history and geography books, literary representations confer on it a different kind of validity—a life in imagination—which Patna lacked. At least in living memory. Patna might have figured in the “magic realist chronicle” * of Megasthenes or in the accounts of Huen Tsiang but that was no use to us who spent hours reading English novels about London and New York borrowed from the Patna College library and devoured Bangla fiction from the bookshelves at home in which Kolkata loomed large as the centre of the world. .If only E.M. Forster had called Chandrapur by its real name we would have had some consolation. But no writer called Patna by its real name—not even the writer of a more recent generation who preferred to situate A Suitable Boy in Brahmpur. That is why Siddharth Chowdhury takes one by surprise : not only does he name Patna as the location of his stories—he flaunts the place name even in the title.   Patna Roughcut is a remarkable book in many ways: it is funny and sad at the same time, conveying a haunting sense of loss and fear of failure that stalks the lives of the characters. In an evanescent and whimsical way it manages to capture the precariousness of relationships, the intimacy as well as the claustrophobia of a small town , and also the cruelty and violence that lurks just beneath the surface. But certainly one of the reasons—though not the only one—why the book moved me is its vivid evocation of a place and an ambience that have shaped my own life. At first I thought I would keep this subjective element out of this review, but ...


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