A literary editor is driving down the Rajasthan-Haryana highway thinking about his life and his publishing list: a translation of Malayalam short stories, mystical love poems by a Naga feminist poet, “the drunk ungrateful bastard” Ritwik Ray and “an excellent Bihari Dalit novelist from Calcutta” Angika Raag who is his “Dalit delight.”
Outside are cabs crammed with 20 people each. Cars display caste stickers — “a bull with a trident for horns and ‘GUJJAR KINGS’ written beneath” — on their windshields. Buses are burning. Armed cow vigilantes are on the loose.
Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Time of the Peacock is essentially an insider’s account of New Delhi’s publishing world told through three character sketches: John Nair, the managing editor of Peacock India and two of his writers — “Patna ka Presley” Ritwik Ray who is one of Chowdhury’s old heroes and Angika Raag, a writer from a marginalised caste everyone assumes is Dalit.
Set in the months after Demonetisation, it’s also an account of our times. Vernacular writers are being killed. But Chowdhury’s trio works in the English-language publishing bubble where, as a poet-activist tells Ritwik, “You write in English. Nobody shoots your kind. You are safe.”
This is a small book — barely 125 pages — but it contains a whole world of insight. Each character responds to the heightened politics of our times. Within their bubble are the complications of bourgie leftism, just outside is the far right. John, Angika and Ritwik each simultaneously mock the superficiality and the seriousness of both these worlds.
“A lot of what passes for masculinity is dissembling, as it is with feminism. A pose. I don’t necessarily think it to be a bad thing. It is needed,” John thinks. This novel is constructed around these poses — everybody’s performing a balancing act, revealing how their politics, like life, are contradictory and complicated.
John is the kind of leftist-liberal who always voted for the Congress or the Left but in the 2014 general elections, filled with a “comprehensive disgust with both,” he did not vote at all. He thinks of himself as a “born-again male chauvinist with postcolonial overtones” — the self-awareness of this description is his license to mock everything, especially caste. “I realize now that in India too much knowledge of caste is as debilitating as too little. A studied indifference, I feel, is the best course,” he thinks. Of course it helps that he was born a Nair, he knows.
This studied indifference led him and others assume that Angika — “the new darling of the Delhi literary world” — was Dalit “and I never corrected them,” she tells us.
She doesn’t correct any assumptions around her caste identity.
“When Mira learnt that I too had been born in Patna, she gave me some ethnographic wisdom about her caste which her grandmother swore by, that just like the Sikhs, the Kayasthas too had 5Ks in their lives: kalam [pen], kalal [the winemaker], kabab [rich meaty food], kaharan [mandatory low-caste mistress], and in the end, karz [debt]. Mira had shared this with me thinking that I too was a Kayastha from Patna, perhaps thrown off scent by my caste neutral name and teekhi nose. I wished to tell her that instead of Kayastha, I was closer to her romantic kaharan, used as I am to carry the burdens of my supple heart. I didn’t, of course, set her straight.”
In this way, Chowdhury drives hefty truths home with this spirited lightness — everything couched in provocative humour.
Angika is on a writers’ fellowship in Scotland where she’s turning a short story into a novel — “A story that when my mother first read it, she didn’t talk to me for a month. It was that good.” This middle section is a portrait of the artist as a fiery mysterious young woman.
“I wouldn’t let fiction ruin me. I won’t ever be a victim to it. But then, fiction ruins men and women writers in different ways, like if I ever put on a display like Ritwik Ray, I wouldn’t be heralded as a wayward genius but slut-shamed from here to Kadam Kuan, Patna. It is the men, you see, who are always the wayward geniuses, with their big disorderly books, filled with arcane lists and ideas, their courage, their violence, their political activism, and complicated love lives; we, on the other hand, as they say in Patna are just doodh-bhaat. For most of us, it is full-time work to get noticed for our brilliant books.”
The Time of the Peacock culminates with a party. It’s the book launch of Best in Show: The Peacock Book of Indo-Anglian Fiction and everybody is present. Chowdhury lists out every single important name in Indian English publishing. (In real life, this party would be dreadful. But in Peacock, a drunk Ritwik threatens to show everyone his “Aadhaar card” by unzipping his trousers.)
What annoyed me was the little hat tips to real people — the Delhiwallah shows up as the “camerawallah, a minute chronicler of the city and habitué of most literary parties,” “Scribe.in” and “Caravanserai” are lazy monickers for Scroll.in and The Caravan. There’s a colonial fiction imprint called Juggutseat meant I suppose to be some kind of play on the publishing house Juggernaut. I cringed each time one of these showed up like a kind of lazy wink-wink in the text.
Siddharth Chowdhury has a cult following — especially among north Indian male literary types. Many of the characters in Chowdhury’s books are recurring. Altogether they tell the story of a community: a literary Bihari cohort hopping between Patna and Delhi.
The discerning sleaze in his books is a specific oxymoron, his characters are such a bizarre balance of bawdy and bookish, they’re able to get away with everything.
I was introduced to Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut (2005) when I first worked in a newsroom a decade ago — it felt like a rite of passage into adulthood — someone lent me their copy because it was out of print. They warned me that it would be like nothing I had read before. Years later when I read Patna Manual of Style when it was published in 2015, I was still unprepared for the audaciousness of language, the chutzpah of it all. In Peacock, Angika, after bringing out a new book into the world, goes on a spa retreat, which “she saucily called a ‘ChutSpa’ in the Himalayas to recuperate from post-partum depression.”
It’s this indescribable but delightful shock of reading the unspeakable articulated with such sophistication that I’m first stunned and then blown away. Every few pages, I come across a sentence and think, did he just say that?
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.
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