Follies of academic life
Kanchan Mehta

Above Average
 by Amitabha Bagchi. Haper Collins. Pages 305. Rs 195.

Based on authorís early life experiences, Above Average, Amitabha Bagchiís debut novel, recalls Joyceís Portrait of Artist As a Young Man and Marcel Provstís In Search of Lost Time. The narrator Arindam Chatterjee, or Rindu, an image of the author, looks back on his adolescence and college days.

Divided into eight chapters, the novel is set in Delhi. Parachute and Asian Paint Women particularly focus on adolescence, the most critical phase in a personís life. The protagonist is, really, Mayur Bhihar, a place, where the narrator, along with other boys and girls, grew up. Arindam Chatterjee wonders how he came particularly closer to Bobby, a bully, who participated in drinking, smoking and vandalism. His curiosity to know and talk about sex probably made him bond with Bobby. He would indulge himself with Bobbyís sex-stories. He had a fascination for an adolescent girl, Bhavna, and her involvement with Winky, a mindless Vandal, disturbed him. The gruesome fact of her murder by her paramour, who later killed himself, deeply affected him. He tells us, "I tried to sleep. But whenever I closed my eyes I saw Winky and Bhavna standing next to my bed."

Photocopy mocks intellectual pretensions of the narrator and his school friends who being aspiring IITians "Pooh-poohed board exams" because "JEE was big one, the real challenge."

Above Average may be labelled as a campus novel, the prime characteristic of which has been to highlight follies of academic life. The narrative revolves around IIT, Delhi, the authorís alma mater. The plot made up of a series of anecdotal stories unmasks affectation, hypocrisy and snobbishness of narratorís college friends. The narrator observed that "some lied brazenly" and "other went about it more subtly." His friends, who deluded themselves into a belief of "being exceptional," chased their sky-high goals, zealously. Neeraj was hoping to win the Turing Award, "an ambition on unbelievably audacious scale." On the contrary, the narrator, who had a desire to be accepted as ordinary, was confused about his goals. With his averageness as his most intimate friend, he lacked passionate interest in everything he did.

He admits that being a "Satti" (seven pointer) in the Computer Science Department, he was not taken seriously academically by his classmates, people in the other departments and even by his own professors. He felt "bewildered and shaken" when his Professor Kantikar rejected him and selected Neeraj for Ph.D, despite his (Neerajís) low CG. Ironically, he who suffered humiliations being a "Satti", went up to Baltimore to pursue Ph.D in computer science. The writer brings to light fallacious standards of judging academic worth.

The chapter "Bandhu" sketches narratorís closeness to SC/ST candidates. He was shockingly disillusioned to realise that he was omitted from their secret society, i.e., the Bandhu Batch of 1996. Hey Joy delineates his first unsuccessful foray into drumming. Cheated by his fellow competitors, he made a fool of himself at rock-prelims.

He was foiled in his attempt to win his girlfriendís heart by writing on her. His girlfriend made him realise that "to write about people meant having to leave oneself behind and enter into them." And that "to love some one also entailed roughly the some thing."

He was obliged to resort to "ironic self-depreciation" to face up to betrayals, jealousies and losses. He says, "If I lost by a wide margin, I would accept that the other guy was a better played, there was no shame in it. Even losing thirteen straight boards to Pratap late one night in the carrom room did not break my spirit. I had realised by then that there were some people who held a psychological advantage over you; they werenít better players but losing to them was inevitable." For the presence of multiple strains of irony and injustice in the social fabric, he confronted "defeat in more than one flavour." Mindful of his "inner ordinariness", he was always graceful in defeat.

With above average you come across a bluntly honest work. The ebullient, resilient and just "Above Average" Arindam Chatterjee strikes a chord with readers. The self-depreciating portrayal of Arindam Chatterjee or of Amitabha Bagchi is both amusing and touching.

The novel is rich in fun and humour. The particularly amusing "Rocksurd" describes Mandeepís metamorphosis into Rocksurd. His desire and curiosity to be a rock-star gave him nickname "Rocksurd", i.e., rocksardar. His willingness to be a devil-worshipper to be a rock-star made him an object of ridicule. He envied the narrator when the later started learning drumming. The tension between human aspirations and human achievements is all pervasive in the novel. The author claims that "we are what we want. We arenít what we do or what achieve or what we acquire or what we become. We are and we always will be what we want."

The style of the novel is marked by an abundant use of IIT slang, which is "cluttered in with jokes" and "suffused with male sexual frustration." Episodic plot replete with prosaic details pertaining to IIT curriculum, unimaginative sub-titles, too may characters and their stories, too much use of swearing words, are flaws of the novel.

Despite these flows, there is indeed, in this novel, a considerable autobiography and personal observation especially in scenes depicting adolescent minds and the accounts of the actual working of IIT.