Book Review: Tin Fish by Sudeep Chakravarty

October 24, 2007
Shantanu Dutta

Sudeep Chakravarty’s book Tin Fish tells us what we have always known - that the days of school and college are the wonder years as The Hindu remarks in its review of the book. I suppose that all coming-of-age books have it in built within them- the cocktail of nostalgia, childhood innocence ripening into the curiosity and experimentation of youth and the trapeze act of trying and often failing to live in  two worlds – the beckoning world of adults and the vaporizing world of the early days.

Looking back in to the past and relishing memories is not a pastime that besots only the old and the middle aged who grew up with songs like “Those Were The Days” type songs. I discovered that when my daughter went back to Kolkata after close to a decade to meet relatives who had only knew her as a child and whom she had known as much younger people but who today are frail and elderly and in that fragile encounter, she broke down and wept at the changes around her. When one era of time meets another, it is really an epochal moment.

Tin Fish is one such peep into the years of early adolescence looked at and analyzed from the prism of adulthood. Set in Mayo College, the famed boarding school, the novel which appears strongly autobiographical is the story of the growing up of years of four friends who are mostly referred to by their nicknames- Fish, PT Shoe, Porridge and Brandy the narrator.

Apart from a glimpse of what boarding school life in one of the elite schools might look like with their old and often irrelevant traditions and their roots in British imperialism, the book will prove particularly nostalgic to those who actually went to school in the 70s, whether to Mayo or else where. The author has magically resurrected long dead treasures like the magazine JS, a shortened form of the Junior Statesman which under its editor Desmond Doig attained as iconic a status as the Illustrated Weekly of India under the stewardship of Khushwant Singh. When the immensely popular but sadly loss making JS eventually closed down, it left a void that no other substitute could truly ever fill and I remember mourning its passing with some pain even today, decades after the magazine is long dead and buried.

There is also a sense of history captured in the books pages - history as the young of the day would have seen it - Indira Gandhi’s emergency and the forced sterilizations, Morarji Desai’s urine therapy, Raj Narain’s buffonry. Even names of long extinct trains like the Jayanti Janata Express and the time when most of Rajasthan was meter gauge and one had to change from broad gauge to meter gauge at some point to proceed beyond Jaipur will evoke memories.

Undoubtedly, the most evocative pieces of the book are about the earliest realization in early youth that nothing ever lasts – that the best and deepest of friendships or the softest of crushes as people wax and wane out of your life- some times they commit suicide and die to escape their own private pain as Fish would do or because their parents get transferred as happened with Sameera , Brandy’s first crush or as every body else does because school is finally over and it is time to disperse and begin all over again in the real world of adults.

Through the imagery of Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, the starlet Katy Mirza more known for her figure than her acting, the now forgotten political satire Kissa Kursi Ka, and the hit Hare Rama Hare Krishna of the now faded Dev Anand, Sudeep Chakravarty has truly recreated the wonder years - especially for those who had their schooling in their 70s.

Shantanu Dutta is a medical doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His writings mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion and tries to look at a changing world through heaven's eyes.
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October 25, 2007
11:21 AM

Thanks for introducing a book which deals with the story of childhood days.I too remember the Junior Stateman how popular it was among youngsters .I also remember ,being a member of the Belgy League in Statesman, how curiously we used to see the names of new members and their hobbies
Your review of the book may be useful to ardent readers.

October 25, 2007
11:26 AM

your blog was very evocative of a byegone era-i remember js- in fact as a medical student i was an amateur journalist and had an article published in js-a wave of nostalgia swept through me on reading your blog

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