Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Common Room by K.B. Rao, 2014

‘The Common Room’ is a novel of atmosphere and seeks to evoke the ambience of a small town college. The old Principal is retiring, and a few contenders and pretenders flex their muscles before jumping into the fray. The members of the common room look on with some curiosity, and not a little anxiety. Everyone has a big question: who is going to replace the old bandicoot? — Back of the book

The Common Room, the debut novel by K.B. Rao, a retired college teacher in Goa, India, chronicles the lives of a motley group of professors who teach at a college in the town of Akadamipur. However, as the eponymous title suggests, the story does not play out in the classroom but in the common room where the teachers discuss in not so hushed tones who among them will replace Old Man Joshi as principal of the Chairman Bhulanath Shet College, known as ‘The College’ to some and as ‘Bullshit College’ to others.

Although The Common Room has a theme, it is actually a collection of interconnected stories narrated by one of the professors who, while choosing to remain anonymous, sees his colleagues for what they are and hears what they have to say about this, that, and the other. Balding and not far from retirement, Prof., as he is known to all, has a “curious disposition with an overactive imagination and an inclination towards the gentle art of gossip.” He does not act, he only reacts, he says, and in spite of being in the thick of it, he doesn't have much of a role to play.

Prof. is an insider who prefers to know what’s going on from the outside. He is like a sounding board against which his peers bounce off their thoughts, their ideas, their theories, their dreams, their fears, their inhibitions, and their resentments. They engage him with intermittent gossip and juicy tales. Through all this Prof. is an amused witness to all that is said and left unsaid. His is a quiet and mature influence on his colleagues both within and outside the common room.

As you read about the everyday lives of a rather idiosyncratic bunch of teachers, through the eyes and ears of the narrator, you wonder why Prof., who is not even a remote contender in the scheme of things, ought not to be the next principal of the Chairman Bhulanath Shet College. After all, he is a veteran of the common room, he is popular among his colleagues who seek out his modest company, and he has a good head on his shoulders.

So who replaces the old bandicoot finally? Just as you narrow down the contenders to one or two of the teachers, K.B. Rao pulls a rabbit out of his hat and ends the story on an unexpected note, much to the chagrin of the more formidable of the contestants.

There is no plot and no intrigue in The Common Room, but there is plenty of atmosphere in this lighthearted and humourous story about a place that most of us, either as academicians or as students, are familiar with. As K.B. Rao told this writer, “The Common Room is supposed to be a novel of atmosphere, a gentle satire on academia.” Well-written and engaging, I found this 247-page debut novel a nostalgic read in many ways as it took me back to my own college days. Recommended.

The Common Room is published by Frog Books, an imprint of Leadstart Publishing Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai, and is available at Leadstart and Amazon. My review copy was sent by the author.

10 comments:

  1. I don't read a lot of books featuring academics. I guess it seems too close to real life perhaps. This sounds pretty interesting, though. I like the idea of it being a group of stories. I'll have to check it out.

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    1. Charles, it is an interesting book; very Indian in its academic setting.

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  2. I ike the sound of this one. Just to set the cat among the pigeons I do hope a woman got the post!

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    1. Mystica, you'll have to read the book to find out who got the principal's chair! I don't suppose there is much difference between an Indian and a Sri Lankan common room.

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  3. Prashant, seems interesting. I think I'd enjoy it if I ever read it. One for the maybe list!

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    1. Col, you'd enjoy the book. It offers a realistic picture of academicians in my neck of the woods.

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  4. Nicely reviewed. Thx. Like Charles, I tend to steer away from fiction set among academics. Too easy a target for satire maybe.

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    1. Ron, thank you. I haven't read "academic" fiction for a long time. This was a pleasant read.

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  5. You know I read mostly mysteries, but the stories of the lives of a bunch of academics sounds interesting. I will put it on my wishlist.

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    1. Tracy, this book has put me on course to read more Indian fiction which I have neglected in recent years. There has been a lot of good writing in Indian fiction. Publishers are more open to nurturing fresh writing talent.

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