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Dude Lit, Dude Lite

Tailor-made for the eternal sophomore, the charms of Amitabha Bagchi’s debut wear thin early on, says Arshad Said Khan

Amitabha Bagchi
Harper Collins
pp 305;
Rs 195
They say there are two types of readers: Type A and Type B. A’s like to read all about themselves and B’s will read anything so long as it does not remind them of their own lives. If you’re a Type A hostel boy or a will-be-joining-hostel boy, (preferably at iit, Delhi), and are looking to celebrate your filial devotion to your alma mater, rush to your nearest bookstore and buy Amitabha Bagchi’s debut novel, Above Average.

You can drool over snapshots of life at the Dhaba, the kls, and the sac, the rock scene, the cgpa and related paraphernalia — even if you aren’t an iitian. If you are a fraternity practitioner whose identity is solely defined as a [insert college name here]-ian/-ite, you can get close enough with this book, to smell a 19-year-old’s dormroom (God forbid!). Select from flavours like campus slang, petty politics, drugs, porn collections, homo-erotic tensions and, of course, geek idiom. Narrator Arindam Chatterjee’s bildungsroman develops more or less in a linear manner, pausing to go circular at brief intervals (gibberish can be contagious, you see). You may forget at times which year or semester he’s talking about, but never fear, you’ll soon be reminded.

You’re taken close enough to smell a
19-year-old’s dorm (God forbid) flavoured with slang, petty politics, drugs, porn and geek idiom
Conspicuously missing, however, is the ragging element, the scourge of Indian colleges in the early and mid-1990s, when this book is set. The subject is touched upon with only a dab of ink — either the author, whose thinly veiled autobiographical account the novel appears to be, never suffered from any harassment or has decided to sweep it under the prudish carpet of the middle-class values he epitomises.

Nevertheless, it’s a coming-of-age story from the Five Year Plan wonder years, leading to an unsure adulthood somewhere on the east coast of the US. Typically, Arindam’s purgatorial ‘middleness’ gives way to dollar heaven (via his PhD) but, as far as the story goes, the boy never quite becomes the man he sets out to be. He grows up enough to momentarily stop spouting swear words and actually cry, but still feels unable to reach out to a suffering friend.

Progressive masculinity you will not find here, but at least you won’t be bombarded with excessive testosterone either. Arindam is comfortable in his shy skin, with a sense of humour that only occasionally gets seriously self-deprecatory. The novel’s universe revolves around him; in terms of being well-rounded, he, in fact, is the only character to even come close to a semi-circle. All the others, even the theoretically-informed girlfriend, remain largely two-dimensional. The book’s liberally scattered minor incidents are solely responsible for shaping its narrative: the exam frenzy, the miniature tragedies, the inner revelations, the exciting rock competition, all propelling Arindam toward his manufactured dream. The single-mindedness of this pursuit reveals its emptiness.

Bagchi’s biggest asset is his language. He moves smoothly from funny desi similes and Delhi-speak to lyrical description. The tone is mostly warm and light yet frank. He is most enjoyable when describing Delhi: vivid yet eerie, charming but hollow, extremely conscious of its very visible class boundaries, composed of many small towns and the clichés that follow.

Speaking of clichés, what may put some readers off is the nri lament the book ends up with: If you try to do what you want to in India, you’re doomed. You may or may not hold Bagchi guilty of prejudice.

Food for thought, anyone?

Mar 03 , 2006

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