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Published on: 07/29/15 5:03 PM

Book review: The Patna Manual of Style by Siddharth Chowdhury

The Patna Manual of Style,  Stories by Siddharth Chowdhury. Aleph Books.

I read this slim book in a state of much mystification, and the mystification remained for a while after I finished it. What`s the buzz about?

The nine short stories all deal with a Bengali- speaking Bihari called Hriday Thakur and his cohort of friends, his long-lost loves and his wife, his mentor and boss. He lives life in a somewhat languid fashion, working at an ad agency while working on a book, lusting after women, sleeping with some of them, smoking, drinking and reading avidly, eating copious amounts of litti chokha.

Here and there, the odd sentence shines through the fog of banality. `You don’t need a horse to wear riding boots, only the temperament,` says a character in possibly a nod to the style of the Patna man about town. Elsewhere, another character deconstructs the British rule in India saying the Brahmins regarded the white man with utter contempt, and this withering life-affirming contempt made survivors of them. `Prejudice kept us sane,` he says sagely. `I must admit I am terribly bright,` avers one character in an earnest tone which immediately catches the reader`s fancy. A man`s mother tells him he is dangerously attractive to women and he is inclined to believe her as his mother, he says, has never lied to him. A woman talks of poetry, saying just a word could dispel the onset of depression, a fully formed word, `as transparent as glass, tugging at her heart with small hands of rain.`

On the whole though, the sentence constructs are extremely awkward, and all the voices, man and woman, sound the same. The language is equally awkward and not because of presumed local patois, mind you. Quite appears in place of quiet, people eat the air, other people rub women`s necks from the esophagus to the chin. I had a ticket which got confirmed after I boarded the train, announces a character….well, you get the idea.

There is a passage that may well hold the kernel of the tale: We (Biharis) can manage anything. Nothing fazes us. We have infinite patience and our skin is made of stainless steel. Scratch-proof. When we are standing in a queue we are not thinking of air conditioners. We are the most philosophical of Indians. Everybody and their dadi has a Bihari friend who manages to get a ration card to a gas connection to a passport for them. We make for good true friends. Resourceful ones.

Then again, I have the feeling that these are traits virtually every community in the country will claim for itself.

Is there irony running with the tensile strength of a steel thread all through the book? Am I missing it?

But. What`s the buzz all about?

Patna Manual of StyleReviewSiddharth Chowdhury

Sheila Kumar • July 29, 2015

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