Published originally in serial form as “The Romantics Of College Street" in The Telegraph over a few months in 2018, Devapriya Roy’s Friends From College is a delightful novel of manners set in modern-day Kolkata, a city made up of equal parts biryani and nostalgia. Roy’s novel follows a set of friends who are in some sense representative of actual Calcuttans (never “Kolkatans") spread across the world. Some continue to live and work in the city in new-age professions (editing a news website, making commercial yet highbrow cinema), others are visiting their childhood homes, while a few others are moving back from various parts of the globe to see if they can make a go of living in the milieu in which they grew up.
Through her robust, flesh-and-blood characters, the novel gently explores the enduring theme of how relationships forged at an intense time of our lives continue to be a big part of who we are despite physical and emotional distances, and what happens when people who are at one point inseparable grow apart and then come together again.
“Friends From College is partly a romantic comedy and partly a social comedy," says Roy of her novel. “I was very clear that I was writing about a particular generation of middle-class and upper-middle-class Calcuttans who had essentially grown up in socialist India—in 1991, they were between 13-16—and so they are the generation who truly reaped the ‘fruits of liberalization’. Some of the characters are products of this moment when the MBA offered a certain kind of a new world, a glamorous corporate life, to students of economics or statistics at Presidency College."
One of the biggest challenges of working on this book was, of course, its serialized format—writing it one chapter at a time on a weekly deadline. Roy, who has written across genres—from engaging novels like The Vague Woman’s Handbook to a travelogue about crisscrossing India on a shoestring budget—was familiar with the concept, having grown up reading serialized novels in Bengali literary magazines like Desh, but the format presented its own peculiar demands. “This novel evolved sentence by sentence and chapter by chapter, and very often I did not know what was going to happen next until I sat down to write. I definitely did not know in advance what the ending was going to be," says Roy. Apart from minor tweaks and elaborations, the narrative hasn’t changed now that the novel has been put together in book form. “If one went back and started expanding the chapters, then the balance of the narrative would get disturbed," she says.
Yet the challenges provided “an electricity to the process", she adds. “There was a sense of working on a canvas, say, in full view of an audience. Since writers usually operate alone, it was an odd experience for me. The biggest advantage was also that thanks to the tight discipline it enforced, I actually finished an entire book in 42 weeks!"