The Promise Breaker

HERE IT is. Let’s ignore the futile book jacket that won’t call this work by its rightful, lovely name. A long story written by a sturdy talent. Reader, here is that rarely published thing — a novella.

Would-be writer from Patna, Hriday Thakur arrives in University’s north campus to receive an education. Day Scholar begins with a walloping first chapter about the local goon and “property dealer” Zorawar Singh Shokeen — it burns readily in its swift sketch of how Zorawar came to be who he is.

The rest of the book seems to hold its breath till the main hook of Hriday’s entanglement with Zorawar, which is too quickly tied up in a forced ending. Mostly we get a leisurely story of Hriday’s Patna life, his escapades and a love affair before speeding into the final Zorawar crisis. Along the way, Day Scholar is superb as a view of ’s college scene in the early 1990s, with easy descriptions of student elections, gangs, romances, tiffin and hostel dances.

Chowdhury writes so plainly it’s as if he was translating from another lan Chowdhury writes so plainly it’s as if he was translating from another language (“But such a dullard”). Simple verges on the simpleton, but the lefthand prose does occasionally burst with loveliness, and its quietness is refreshing after the noisiness of most IWE authors. So when he describes a girl’s “full, butter- fortified figure” or a couple’s marriage as “the most extravagant thing they had bought together, even though it was not of much use to them. Like a crystal chandelier in a one-room flat”, you nod in assenting recognition. The Hindi vernacular also turns some gems (“attempt le liya doctorni pe”; “shake hands karo”; voting patterns called “hawa”). But we also get clunkers like “I couldn’t be a disinterested flaneur anymore”. Or a heroic train wreck of a sentence like this: “At Commerce College, which had along with Anugrah Narayan (AN) College in Patna, a reputation of being a tough, dangerous place, I naturally gravitated, as was my wont, towards boys who like me had no purpose in life whatsoever.”

The main problem is, Chowdhury tells everything in a tone of mock epic nostalgia. The first chapter’s friskiness is temporary and the book loops in a slowmo fugue of insecurity — we regularly get two-word emphatic sentences like “Only rapture.” One wishes Chowdhury had stuck with Zorawar rather than the hackneyed writer-observer narrator. Hriday is gallantly insipid, and you don’t much care what happens to this moony kid. Hidden somewhere in Day Scholar is also a touching story of a young boy’s journey into literature — from Auden and Cheever to Gorky and Hemingway. But Chowdhury manages neither the authentic earnestness of Edmund Wilson in Benares nor the spoofing of David Lodge. He needs to stop throat-clearing and sustain his happy instinct for risk.

Paul Schrader meets Nabokov, insists the book jacket. Like Hriday’s education, this turns out to be sentimental as well.

First published here.