B. P. Singh’s When the Chalk is Down is a compelling book which traces the author’s journey as a young man struggling to find meaning in a country beset with social and political injustices. In tracing his journey, he has woven into his narrative his encounters with strange and not-so-strange characters, his relationship with his parents and loving family, and his engagement with work colleagues. The story is believable in that the writer’s personal experiences are carefully balanced with his inquiry into issues of ownership, civic matters and the controversies surrounding inequalities in education. In this sense, the writing can be pegged a little higher than the mere storytelling that he claims for it.
Singh sets the tone perfectly in the opening chapter when he recalls his “punitive transfer” to Ulundi, his conciliatory chat with the fierce “Bengal Tiger” and his unsuccessful meeting with a Town Board official. The rest of the book follows suit: every encounter is offset by humour be it via the increasing absurdity of life under men in power and their bizarre behaviour or his plans to elevate his parents’ status by reclaiming what is rightfully theirs. This is the strength of the writing: he tempers his resentment for abusive authority with playful repartee. He fights off his demons without bludgeoning them. In a similar pattern, he shows deep respect for people who have shaped his life positively.
Throughout, there is a sense of the writer’s personal growth and solid moral vision. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, increasing pressure and dwindling signs of hope, Singh demonstrates that it takes courage to act when the chalk is down. At the end there is a restoration of balance in his life made possible by his sincere moments of introspection.
If the author has used this book as a training ground, then he has pulled it off at every level.