Amitabha Bagchi’s Above Average

I’ve generally stayed away from the recent spate of ‘IIT’ books, having winced through a chapter or two of Chetan Bhagat, but Bagchi’s book came well recommended, plus a book about an opera-loving rock-crazed teenager growing up in Mayur Vihar in the 90’s comes (literally) too close to home to be ignored.

Calling Above Average a novel, is, to me, something of a misnomer. It’s more like a collection of modestly well written vignettes loosely cobbled together into a book. The overall effect is of spending an afternoon with an old friend listening to him reminisce about the good old days. A few of this friend’s war stories are genuinely entertaining, but most have only the value of nostalgia, and you listen to them politely, because, well, the person telling them is such a nice guy.

Two things make this book enjoyable. The first is the sincerity of Bagchi’s writing, its quiet simplicity. Bagchi has considerable talent for bringing conversations to life, but on the whole he’s not a particularly astonishing prose writer. What makes the book a pleasant read is that Bagchi seems to recognize this, and doesn’t try to push the limits. It would have been easy to be too clever or too dramatic in writing this book, but it’s a trap that Bagchi successfully avoids. And because he does the book has a certain basic authenticity, a sense of genuineness, of fundamental honesty. It’s a quality that’s rare enough to be worth admiring.

It’s also a quality that makes it possible for the reader to identify with the book’s narrator, which is the second pleasure that the book affords. There’s something insidiously appealing about reading a book that reflects so much of your own life experience, especially when that experience is so competently described. The book works, I think, because its nostalgia comes clothed in the familiar, so that in reading it we get access to our own memories, our own past. This sense of identification is presumably strongest for those who went to the IITs (though not having been to one I can only speculate) but I think anyone who went to college in Delhi in the mid to late 90s will find something in the book to relate to.

My biggest frustration with the book lies with Bagchi’s development (or lack of development) of its narrator. This narrator – one Arindam / Rindu – is the proper centre of the book. Given that the episodes in the book are connected loosely, if at all, it falls to the narrator to hold them together, to provide, in his own person, the essential gravity of the novel. Yet it is precisely here that Bagchi’s honesty fails him. For a book manifestly about the coming of age of a certain generation, Above Average is unbelievably reticent about its central protagonist. We learn a lot about Rindu’s friends and the people he interacts with, but he himself remains sketchy and elusive. The book tells us, for instance, almost nothing about his family or his relations with them. Rindu’s interests are mentioned and implied, but barely developed – we get one fleeting reference to opera, and his entire interest in literature and writing (surely a huge part of his life) gets summarily dealt with in a couple of pages. The same thing happens with Rindu’s decision to join academia, and his one significant romantic relationship remains virtually unexplored as well. You almost get the sense that Rindu is telling you these long elaborate stories about other people to keep from talking about himself. So reluctant is Bagchi to provide any emotional access to Rindu, that the narrator remains a blank, shadowy figure, impossible to really invest in. This is a shame, because it gives the book a weightless, unanchored quality, and because the few times we are allowed into Rindu’s feelings are among the most powerful in the book. If Bagchi had shared more of Rindu with us, this would have been a better book.

It would also have been a better book if Bagchi had spent more time on the everyday. As it is the book reads like a collection of episodes with much of what goes on in between edited out. Bagchi does give us the occasional glimpse of what ordinary life was like for Rindu and his friends, but these pieces seem haphazardly thrown in and they are too few of them. What the book hints at but doesn’t quite deliver is a tangible feel for the experience of being at an IIT, a real sense of the context in which its action takes place. This is not, by itself, a criticism – the act of writing is necessarily about selection and Bagchi is free to focus only on key incidents – but I can’t help feeling that a richer description of the more mundane world of the IITs is exactly what Bagchi’s talent seems best suited to. For me, the value of the book even as it stands lies not so much in the plot development (such as it is) but in an almost anthropological exploration of a particular time and place, and I can only wish that Bagchi had developed that more fully.

Overall then, Above Average is a book I’m underwhelmed by. It has its moments, and is a pleasant and mildly entertaining read, but I can’t help feeling that the two and a half hours I spent reading it could have been better employed chatting with an old college batchmate.