Excerpt from the best-of collection of a writer with a razor-sharp wit whose work blended the bizarre with the profound
GN Bureau | May 7, 2022
Truth Digger: The Best of Shovon Chowdhury
Edited by Urmila Chowdhury and Sandipan Deb
Aleph Books, 270 pages, Rs 499
When Shovon Chowdhury died in February last year, he was in his mid-fifties and much writing was yet to come from him. The veteran advertising professional had written two novels, both humorous and dystopian – ‘The Competent Authority’ and ‘Death with Bengali Characteristics’. He was also contributing a humour column to The Hindu Business Line and had written science fiction as well.
A writer with a razor-sharp wit whose work blended the bizarre with the profound, part-jester, part-rationalist, he employed his terrific sense of humour (often directed at himself) to put an absurd spin on reality.
Urmila Chowdhury, Director, Education, at Peepul, an education focused non-profit, who was married to Shovon Chowdhury for thirty-two years, teams up with Sandipan Deb, a journalist, author and former editor several publications, to put together ‘Truth Digger’, a collection of the best of Chowdhury’s writing.
Besides generous excerpts from his widely praised novels, in the section entitled ‘The Investigator’ the book presents a selection from his longest-running column with the tagline ‘We dig for the truth. So you don’t have to’; ‘We the People’ is a series of reactions to the increasingly bewildering political world; ‘The 4-Minute Manager™’ aims to make a management guru out of everyone; ‘Ask Uncle’ carries advice from your friendly neighbourhood uncle; ‘What If’ presents alternate histories from the Chinese capturing Assam to Madhuri never performing ‘Ek, Do, Teen’ and more; also included are poetry and the previously unpublished piece, ‘I Lost My Trousers in Tiljala’.
Wildly funny, thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining, Truth Digger pays tribute to one of our finest comic writers.
Here is the beginning of a work of speculative fiction, from ‘Truth Digger’:
The Man Who Turned into Gandhi
This short story was written for ‘The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction’ (2019), edited by Tarun Saint. Shovon had become fascinated with Mahatma Gandhi while researching his first novel ‘The Competent Authority’, and it is almost certain that the novel that he had been planning and making notes about on his iPhone but never got around to writing, would have featured Gandhi in a major way.
Shovon saw Gandhi as an extremely complex character—wily, autocratic, possessed of a strong moral centre, and a unique personality who unified as well as divided. However, in balance, he interpreted the Mahatma as a unique force for good.
The Man Who Turned into Gandhi
1 AUGUST 2017
Clumps of hair in my comb this morning. Am shocked. Have been secretly using my wife’s hair oil, but hair loss continues. Perhaps Keo Karpin does not suit me. Talked to the barber, he suggested coconut oil.
3 AUGUST 2017
Coconut oil was a failure. Patches of my scalp are now visible. Feel embarrassed. The men in my family are famous for their hair. My father had flowing locks at age 72. My wife is blaming the rum. I do not agree. Have enjoyed Old Monk with many, most of them have full heads of hair.
4 AUGUST 2017
Hair loss continues. Spat out a tooth while brushing this morning. Several others are loose. Why am I decaying like this? What else is going to fall off? Have lived a reasonably blameless life. Never raised my hand in anger. Gave only one or two bribes, did not steal anyone’s money. Have even donated to others, when able. If I am being punished, what is it for?
5 AUGUST 2017
Caught one of my students staring at me. There are five of them, they come after school. Their Class X exams are next year. I’ve spent my whole life teaching. After retirement, this is what I do. The lights are dim in my single room. Was hoping they would not notice. ‘Sir, have you seen a doctor?’ he asked. I probably should. Have been too shocked by the speed of my disintegration. My wife has been surprisingly unsympathetic. She seems to feel I’m doing it on purpose. She has also hidden her hair oil.
This evening, I felt ants crawling all over my skin. It was unbearable. I tore off my shirt, but there was nothing there. It must be the shirt. It was a gift from a foreigner who stayed with us once. He was one of the many reporters who came when our village was in the news. I seem to have developed an allergy to foreign clothing. I am definitely seeing the doctor tomorrow.
6 AUGUST 2017
Doctor said it’s some kind of viral, and prescribed some antibiotics. He said I should brush my teeth more. He seemed quite confident. I am not convinced by his diagnosis, but I had to pay him nevertheless.
7 AUGUST 2017
Suddenly, I am able to write with my left hand. The letters are tighter when I use my left hand, the writing full of flourishes. I can write with both hands now. A useful skill. If I believed in any god, I would have considered it a blessing. As it is, I am wondering whether it has anything to do with the radiation from my mobile phone.
8 AUGUST 2017
Today, I was unable to eat chicken. My wife had made it as a special treat.
We can barely afford vegetables. I pushed the bowl away. It made me feel ill. What is happening to me? The odd piece of chicken was one of the few remaining pleasures of my twilight years. ‘Can you get me some goat’s milk?’ I asked, without thinking.
‘You’re losing your mind,’ said my wife. ‘I knew it would happen. There’s a history of insanity in your family. Your uncle in Ghaziabad used to talk to furniture. I can’t look after you, I’m warning you. I’ve done a lot. It’s been 40 years. Enough is enough.’
It’s probably just as well. In any case, I have just 11 teeth left. Chewing solids is becoming difficult.
9 AUGUST 2017
I have become a public spectacle. When I walk on the street, people make way for me. Sometimes they point at me and whisper. I saw a little boy standing on a boundary wall, trying to beat down mangoes with a stick, his tongue sticking out in concentration. He paused briefly
to salute me, teetering precariously.
‘Where did you learn to do that?’ I asked.
‘In school,’ he said, ‘on Indypindy Day.’
10 AUGUST 2017
Saw a picture of Nehru in the paper today. Felt an overwhelming rush of affection. Am surprised. Never been a big fan. He was the father of Indira Gandhi, an unpleasant woman who misguided her sons.
11 AUGUST 2017
Realized this morning that the toilet is filthy. Spent the rest of the day cleaning it. In the evening, I gave my wife a lecture on our lack of a moral compass. We were discussing the Akhlaq case and how the young men had just been released after local politicians said they had been unfairly targeted.
There was much celebration in the village. All my life I have believed that education will transform this country. I have dedicated myself to this.
But now it is becoming clear that moral values are what we lack. Unless every child receives moral instruction from an early age, this country has no future. Late into the night, after I finished my lecture, I asked my wife for her opinion. ‘All these years, you used to talk very little,’ she said, ‘It was one of your few good points.’
12 AUGUST 2017
The shape of my face seems to be changing. Of all the things that are happening to me, this is the most peculiar. My wife felt my forehead. ‘Are you suffering from dengue?’ she asked. ‘Maybe you should get a blood test.’ I probably should, but I’m nervous. I’m not sure this is normal. ‘My chin is pointier, isn’t it?’ I asked. ‘It’s definitely pointier,’ she said. ‘Plus your smile is sweeter than it used to be.’
I am now almost completely bald.
[The story continues. The excerpt reproduced with permission of the publishers.]
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