After writing four fictional works, Diksha at St. Martin’s, Day Scholar, Patna Rough-cut, and Patna Manual of Style, and attracting a fair amount of informed critical attention, Siddharth Chowdhury is back with a novel that his imagined editor qualifies as ‘short’ with the insert symbol on the cover. His loyal readers would recognize the quirky cover design as vintage Chowdhury: self-reflexive, ironic, and terribly stylish. If there is one defining characteristic of Chowdhury’s writing, it is stylishness. But whereas the adage goes, ‘Style is the man’, in this case you have the man carefully crafting his style from his lived experiences as a young boy in Patna, a student in Delhi University, an editor at a publishing firm, and a well-received Indian English writer, who has an uncommon facility with Hindi and making it his signature. His works have emerged as a distinctive brand of Indian English fiction that manages to be both provincial and cosmopolitan; vulnerable and confident; and sensitive and unapologetically male at the same time. The Time of the Peacock, his fifth fictional work and sixth publication—the second, third, and fourth books having come out together for the second time as Ritwik & Hriday, Tales from the City, Tales from the Town—is his art at its maturity.
I read The Peacock twice. The first time, emerging slowly from the Covid-fog, my mind was reluctant to do the work Chowdhury demands from the reader. However, the second time round, pronounced fit and fully recovered, I read the book with increasing excitement, unravelling the intricate structure and unpacking the references that range from Kadam Kuan in Patna to Wallace Water in the Scottish lowlands.
As the cover of the book indicates, the short novel is about the goings-on in the Indian English publishing world. But this is not the fiction of the name-dropping, nudge-nudge, wink-wink kind that one might associate with such a niche subject. Chowdhury brings to it his acute analytical sensibility and places the seemingly rarified world of celebrated authors, multi-crore advances, wily agents and god-like publishers in the context of the vexed political situation in the country. Not only are the gods discovered to have feet of clay, but writers too are revealed as conflicted beings attempting to realize their works between the demands of creativity and the market. This kind of serious writing on the Indian English publishing industry has not happened before and Chowdhury has for his inspiration some excellent works by global publishing-insiders. He acknowledges them in the course of the story: Diana Athill’s Stet and Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, locating both these masterpieces, with characteristic flourish, in the discount shelf of a Khan Market bookshop (p. 90).
It is Ritwik Ray, the Patna author, who we have met earlier in Chowdhury’s books, who is the explorer of the book-shelves in The Peacock. The reappearance of characters is another exciting element in Chowdhury’s writing giving depth and continuity to his fiction. Ritwik is the central character although he appears only in the third and final story, the only one to be told in the third person. The first story—of a voyage from middle-class Vasant Kunj to Sidhrawali in rough and rural Haryana and the outwitting of the demon of communalism—is told in the first person by his publisher at Peacock, John Nair. The second story, also narrated in the first person, is by an upcoming literary star, Angika Raag ‘Nishad’, who is on a fellowship to Scotland and who shares Ritwik’s place of origin, and possibly covets his position in the literary world. But it is Ritwik’s story that provides the connections to the larger theme in the novel: the interface between Bhasha and Indian English or, if one likes, Bharat and India. Just that morning the celebrated revolutionary Hindi writer, Ramanuj Sahi had handed him the manuscript of his memoir. Threatened by the RSS—Chowdhury refers to them as ‘Jhandewalan knickerbockers’ (p. 118)—Sahi’s publisher was refusing to publish it. Sahi is left with just one hope for its publication which is to persuade Ritwik to translate it into English: ‘You write in English. Nobody shoots your kind. You are safe’ (p. 118).