BETWEEN THE COVERSIt’s a good start but this genre has a long way to go. PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
Six out of every 10 Indian campus novels now sell an average of 4,000 copies, making each a bestseller. The trend kicked in when Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone sold more than 50,000 copies. Having been a long-time fan of the genre, I can’t help feeling that the Indian campus novel still seems to be coming of age.
For a while reading about life at IIT and IIM was a novelty, but now we have too many of them. (Above Average by Amitaba Baghchi is a fairly agreeable entry in this sub-genre — an interesting tale of a middle class techie in Delhi yearning to be the drummer of a rock band. More than math or science, his mind is on the IIT Rock Fest). I’m glad then to at least see a few campus novels set within a humanities and arts context, where the debates and discussion are refreshingly not about software and share markets but history, literary theory, politics and arts.
Srividya Natarajan’s No Onion, Nor Garlic is set in Chennai University, while Soma Das’ Something of a Mocktail is set in JNU. (I suppose Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake — young Gogol in Yale — is at least in part campus novel?)
What is the basic appeal of a campus novel? For me it has been the thrill of revisiting student life: the anticipation and boredom of classes, coffee and conversation in the canteen, all that nubile beauty on display, hostel life, student politics, incautious idealism, campus romances, discovering mentors, the cloistered world of academics, forging deep friendships, the flowering of exciting experiences, both intellectual and emotional, and a certain leisure and aimlessness that college years throw up that never again comes you way in life. It isn’t hard to see that the secret appeal of the campus novel is that the university is a metaphor for the universe.
My bets are on R.K. Narayan’s The Bachelor of Arts as being the very first Indian campus novel in English. And that the roots of the present-day campus novel are buried in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August and Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans. (You can skip the latter, but don’t miss out on English, August).
My own three favourites in the genre are: Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, James Hynes’ A Lecturer’s Tale and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. What our campus novels lack are academic mysteries: a hybrid of college life and a thriller. My three fave academic mysteries are: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Amanda Cross’ The James Joyce Murder. Won’t it be fun to have our very own academic mysteries? Just imagine: a dead body on campus, and our student heroine investigating scholarly suspects!
What the Indian campus novel also lacks are books in the genre written by lecturers — college life viewed from their experience. All our campus novels at the moment are mostly about students written by recently graduated students. What I’d like to see is a juicily plotted, complex Indian campus novel that describes the intellectual and emotional life of both, students and professors entertainingly, accurately, and wittily. In other words — the Great Indian Campus Novel!
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