Kenny Deori Basumatary
`200, 243 pages
I have known Kenny for quite a while, since our college days. One of the first things I noticed when I met him back then was his irrepressible sense of humour and absurdity in the face of the hard stone wall that passes for life. He hasn’t changed since then.
Today he is a multi-faceted person. Former TV news channel anchor, lyricist, composer, guitarist and actor (he stars in the upcoming Shanghai by Dibakar Banerjee), Chocolate_Guitar_Momos is his debut novel.
Joseph is your very friendly neighbourhood fellow trying to make a name as a musician in Guwahati. After a haymaker of a breakup with his girlfriend in Delhi, during which he loses his beloved bike for a song, he decides to take charge. Now, his idea of taking charge is to go looking for a girl who had smiled across the road at a bus stop on Zoo-Narengi Road eight years earlier. Good idea, says the reader, except our poor Joe does not know her name or address. Or even her face. The only thing he does recall is she was wearing a grey skirt.
But our Joe is not one to back down, so, backed by his reluctant sidekick Utpal (who would probably take umbrage if you called him a sidekick) he goes around systematically tracking down all the girls of approximately his age who went to junior colleges in grey skirts then. After one ROFL moment and another, the duo inch their way to the girl.
Chocolate_Guitar_Momos contains not just a purely hilarious plot, but also very witty dialogues. To call it within the tradition of Wodehousian dialogues would be a trifle unjust, because they carry Kenny’s unique trademark. But there is a subtle nod to Plum when, in a discussion about likes and dislikes, our Joe discovers that a girl (I won’t tell you if she was the one) is “skilled with words, no matter in which language.” Through Joe, Kenny calls such girls “this increasingly endangered species” and we could not but agree.
And then there is the backdrop. Guwahati and, in a cameo Shillong, are never obtrusive to the plot, but there are enough word pictures for us to agree the plot could never have been set in any other part of the world. Zoo-Narengi Tiniali plays the initial unsuspecting cupid, of course, but there are also the extras, such as Chandmari, Geetanagar and Paltan Bazar police stations, where, as Utpal reminds Joseph, they would land up if they went looking for grey-skirted girls at Vidya Mandir, Maria’s and Faculty, and Swadeshi. A sort of list of places with grey skirt uniforms and also a reminder of the pitfalls.
There is a record-breaking binge by a girl at Momo Ghar, the repeated mentions of Daaju’s lusi-bhaaji which could pass for any of the numerous roadside food stalls in the city and reminded me, at least, of good old Reboti at Naag Kota Pukhuri, the different residential areas like Ambari and Chandmari that flit by as the plot progresses. It is a very clever element of grounding, of rootedness.
Where else would the mention of a traffic snarl involving an MLA’s car and an army truck – the two vehicle breeds which always have the right of way in Guwahati – invoke understanding nods from the characters? Where else would a bunch of student activists, trying to enforce a bandh of some kind, run into a group of ITBP taekwondo champs in civvies? Where else but Shillong would the characters bond even more over momos and iromba?
Alcheringa at IIT Guwahati plays an uncredited role too, in a montage of competing bands, music and hecklers. The inner workings of a band of friends, split by internal hassles, also figure here, something anyone from this neck of the woods would instantly grasp. So does mokkel, that umbrella phrase so beloved of our younger years.
Various Indian writers have made disparate attempts at humour writer, and then there is the new breed of what is called ‘IIT fiction’, about young men and women, sometimes students, about town. Most of it is so shockingly insipid that the faint of heart are well-advised to stay away from the genre. Kenny, as he would be the first to admit, is voluntarily non-IITed and Chocolate_Guitar_Momos is a class apart.
A review a few years ago by a leading national magazine of an English novel by an Assam writer had given it the thumbs down, saying it reinforced stereotypes of “‘chinks’on bikes in search of beer and beef.” A chronicler of Guwahati’s young and somewhat clueless might run into the same pitfall. Kenny, instead, by joining the tradition of those ancient men and women who told stories around tribal campfires thousands of years ago, chooses the simple, geographically rooted and humour-filled way to tell a story. And makes Chocolate_Guitar_Momos a novel to remember fondly.