“Swamiji” is a standalone chapter from a novel, In the Light of the Black Sun, that came out from Penguin in India in 1997. The novel is the only published fiction by the scientist Rohit Manchanda, and its original name was A Speck of Coaldust (a title I prefer). It’s set in a fictional North Indian mining settlement called Khajoori in the ’60s and ’70s: a portrait of both a small town and a childhood. On its publication, the book got a Betty Trask award, and I included the chapter in the Picador Book of Modern Indian Writing.
Swamiji is about wanting to grow tall and about reading comic books. The delightful self-absorption of its main characters and their obliviousness to the larger world – which exists only as a hint in the story – might have a peculiar resonance for readers now. “Swamiji” captures an interlude, joyous despite its disappointments, very unlike the joyless abeyance in which we find ourselves.
— Amit Chaudhuri
Vipul was getting on in years but was showing no signs of growing tall, and this made both Vipul and his parents anxious.
The matter of the height of a child, or for that matter anybody’s height at all, was of the greatest import to the people of Jadugoda, as it was to the people of all of India’s other towns and cities. Children and their parents, at all kinds of events and places – at parties, in school, on social visits – were asked, “So how tall have you grown?”, or “Has your son touched five yet?”, as inevitably and as naturally as they might be asked their names.
A good height mattered a great deal: tall people had personality: at five-six, you had begun to be noticed, a head of hair above the crowds; at five-nine you virtually towered above them; beyond six-zero – a dream – you rose like a monument. The inches mattered most of all for marriage. The parents of tall boys received proposals from the parents of the best cultivated girls. Like the alphonso mango, the gene for tallness was in demand as acute as it was in supply short.
And so all parents, including Vipul’s, remained in perennial suspense about the state of elongation of their children, and particularly of their boys. They measured their heights every few weeks, against walls where little horizontal nicks marked the often painfully slow vertical progress of their bodies. The boys were administered growth-promoting tonics and fed vitamin-rich preserves.
Parents whose children seemed never to emerge from the darkness of the Midgets’ category in the school’s annual sports day wore humiliated, cheated looks. They and their children prayed for sudden providential spurts of growth. In contrast parents whose children advanced problemlessly into the Seniors looked becalmed, as though half the exhausting, life-long task of decently settling their offspring had been automatically and effortlessly accomplished – which it had.
For Vipul there was further cause for dismay. The Bull, living up…