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‘Friends from College’: Of bonds that last

Jonaki Ray | Updated on October 04, 2019 Published on October 04, 2019

Quiet witness: The character that acts as a connecting thread throughout the novel is the city of Kolkata and the feelings it evokes   -  PTI

Devapriya Roy’s ‘Friends from College’ is not a book that will sear itself into your memory. But it will spark a smile of remembrance

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best friendships are the ones you make in college. You share confidences, fight, make up, fall in love, fall out of love — and all these dramatic events take on a mellow hue when you think of them years later. You may not meet your old collegemates for years, but when you do, you rewind and pick up right where you were, all those years ago.

I was reminded of these long-distance, nostalgia-tinged bonds while reading Devapriya Roy’s Friends from College. Roy, whose earlier book The Vague Woman’s Handbook  was on women, friendship and the city of Delhi, brings the same understated humour and deceptively simple style to this book about bonds between friends.

 

Friends from College; Devapriya Roy; Westland; Fiction; ₹299

 

Lata (Charulata) Ghosh, the central character in Friends from College, is visiting her home-town Kolkata. She wants a break from her world of past relationships, online dates and the glamorous yet tiring life as a management consultant. She is in Kolkata to attend a family wedding. The wedding is being planned at the Ghosh mansion, where she, her mother, Manjulika, and their domestic help/manager Nimki reside together with various members of the extended family.

Amidst the chaos of the wedding — Lata’s cousin is marrying AJ, who is not a Bengali, which means the two parties need to negotiate the ceremonies so that they balance both sides — and clashes with the expectations of her mother (who wants Lata to find love, too), the protagonist tries to come to terms with the emptiness of her life. Even while flying to Kolkata, Lata thinks of “the two warring men she was leaving behind in London, who had both messaged her in a half-hearted, too-little-too-late sort of way in the last two hours and whom she would not reply to, not any more”.

In Kolkata, though, she keeps encountering ghosts from her past. It was in the city, after all, that she’d met, befriended, loved — and lost — Shomiron ‘Ronny’ Banerjee, her collegemate. While the rest of the batch went up the corporate ladder, Ronny was a film-maker. Now a celebrity director, he was dating a rising actress and making his magnum opus.

But Ronny, held up as the most remarkable alumnus of the Class of ’97, is dealing with an existential crisis. “There was the ...constant, corrosive worry about money... And he was pushing forty. Yes, on balance, he had had a small spot of fame. Only thing nobody told you: fame didn’t pay for anything.”

Lata’s close friend Aaduri, who had witnessed the Lata-Ronny friendship and relationship, is in the midst of launching a new website and dealing with the millennials of her team. Then there is her poetry-spouting colleague Hem, who follows her around, reminding her of deadlines, and helping her out when he can.

The character that acts as a connecting thread, however, is the city of Kolkata, and the feelings it evokes. As Lata muses: “...girlhood Pujos: a sense of waiting in the pit of one’s stomach, intense peer pressure about clothes, and a vague panic that in the heady days that lay ahead, something momentous might turn her life upside down altogether (or the worse fear that something momentous might not).”

How the characters deal with their past, organise and coordinate the wedding, face up to their mistakes, and deal with a final twist in the tale takes the book to a heart-warming, though somewhat predictable, finale. While the book is a quick and delightful read, there are a few quibbles.

The reader could have done with some more details about the inner turmoil in Lata, instead of the focus on her beauty; tighter editing of some of the passages; and a better narrative arc of the ‘side’ characters.

Overall, though, in the detailed description of the characters and their emotional roller-coasters, the descriptions of joint family life, old homes, and the city of Kolkata, the book reminds me of Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends (1990), a novel about friendships. It provides a much-needed story about the bonds between old friends, especially women. Reading it evokes the same warm feeling of comfort that you get when you meet an old friend and swap confidences, as the friends in the book do, “over a cup of Coffee Sprungli in a café such as Flury’s”.

This is not a book that will sear itself into your memory. But, in its details about the growing-up of the characters and the growing old of the city, it will nestle in your heart and bring a smile of remembrance.

Jonaki Ray is a writer, editor and poet based in New Delhi

Published on October 04, 2019
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