You read a book by an author you haven’t read before. You like it. You read up about the author. You like what you read. Then, you meet the author at a literary fest. And promptly fall in love with them. Literarily. Not literally.
I spotted Siddharth Chowdhury on the very first day of the just-concluded The Hindu Lit for Life 2016. Siddharth was there as his new book, ‘The Patna Manual of Style’, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Fiction. I read the book a couple of months back, after reading glowing reviews of it, and found it sweet, simple, soft, warm. His storytelling and language are so simple that it makes you believe you can be a successful writer yourself. And I mean this in a good way, of course.
So, there Siddharth was at one of the event organizer tables at the entrance, signing a cheque. (From what I could gather, there must have been some change of plan, for which he was presently having to pay out of his pocket, and I guess he would be reimbursed later.) A few people were coming up, not to speak with him, but for inquiries, believing him to be one of the organizers. But since he seemed to be busy, they just picked up the event brochure and left. I took the opportunity to approach him with what I thought was a clever introduction line, “Hey, Siddharth, you shouldn’t stand here as they’ll think you’re on the organizing committee.” And before he could wonder who hadn’t mistaken him for an organizer, I quickly added, “I know your name because I’ve read your book, loved it, and am waiting to speak with you.”
Cheque-signing over, Siddharth was free to speak with me. While I shared with him whatever I wanted to talk to him about, I couldn’t help noticing how soft-spoken he seemed to be. Even shy. Even benign. Even like a mouse. (And I mean this in a good way, of course.) I was a little surprised by this, for on the inside back cover of the book is a photo of his where he seems to be from a regal family, and therefore a bit unapproachable. The same pic was on the board nearby that spotlighted the names and books of all the nominated authors. I told him so. I don’t remember his exact reaction now, but it was… benign.
I spotted who seemed to be his wife and kid close by, and then parts of the book (which is actually several parts of his life autobiographized) came back to me: going to Calcutta/Kolkata to ask for his to-be wife’s hand from her parents, making out with her with implorations of “no, not on the chin, like a dog” (she), his wife encouraging his writerly dreams… It’s surreal watching a writer’s life, or at least parts of it, unraveling in front of you. Or at least, you think it is: for what if rather than autobiographizing it, he, being a writer, was actually concocting it?
And then, we spoke about his book and writing. The book is a 143-pager, comprising several short stories that are interconnected. While it’s a pleasure to read, I shared with him that it’s perhaps too short, at least too short to win a major award like this. He told me his writing is very short (so I need to go and read his other books). And left me with – when I asked him, despite the size of the book, whether he fancies his chances at the award – a not-so-benign, but utterly-filled-with-candour, “No way!” And that’s when I was smitten with Siddharth. Again, literarily of course.
I read more about him at night, and saw him the next day too. He was all dressed up as the award ceremony was in the afternoon. He, like the other authors, would be reading a bit from his book. Wished him luck. Asked for his card (didn’t have it). Wondered if it would be okay to drop in to meet him if and when I’m next in Delhi (he’s an editorial consultant at Manohar Publishers). Went for the session. Watched him read. Watched him receive a generous response. And watched him not winning. Sigh. (The winner was Easterine Kire for ‘When the River Sleeps’.) Heard my mind go: ‘Rigged’. ‘Unfair’. ‘Boohoo’.
In my two interactions with him, as I’ve already written, I found Siddharth Chowdhury to be as gentle as a Red Panda (what’s with my animal analogies, and hope he doesn’t mind, or better doesn’t see this). And then, his writing seemed to unravel some more. ‘The Patna Manual of Style’, as I see it, should be called ‘The Writer’s Manual of Style’, or even ‘The Siddharth Chowdhury Manual of Writing’: simple, warm musings and anecdotes of a writer’s aspirations (‘ambitions’ is too strong a word for someone like Siddharth and for his writing), muses, rigours (the chapter about a day in the life of a writer, titled unassumingly ‘Autobiography’), insecurities (the first chapter where he loses his job). And the best part is, it’s part of a series (the previous two being ‘Day Scholar’ and ‘Patna Roughcut’, from what I know). No, the real best part is the name Siddharth gives his protagonist, or alter ego (as it’s autobiographized). ‘Hriday’. ‘Heart’ in Hindi. Not ‘Dil’, also ‘heart’ in Hindi, but which sounds commercial and coarse. But ‘hriday’, a softer word. Or a word that’s more… benign.
My hriday looks forward to more from gentle little Siddharth Chowdhury.