Book Excerpt: ‘A Speck of Coal Dust’ by Rohit Manchanda

Book Title: A Speck of Coal Dust
Author: Rohit Manchanda
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Number of Pages: 308
ISBN: 978-9354898853
Date Published: May. 27, 2024
Price: INR 240

A Speck of Coal Dust by Rohit Manchanda Book Cover

Book Excerpt



One morning, two new faces appeared in the jeep, and some mornings after this, a third.

The first two were girls; and Vipul’s desolation grew.

They were called Ratna and Chetna. Their father, Mr Agarwal, was a Marwari. In contrast to all other Marwari men, who took to business
in the same predestined, sensual way that a Punjabi takes to non-vegetarian food, he had deviated in instinct somewhere along the line
and made a mining engineer of himself. His daughters had faces of a kind that Vipul was not accustomed to, and they so bewitched him that
he kept staring at them, making them uncomfortable on their very first journey from Khajoori to school. They had inherited – he saw later –
the very thick eyebrows of their father which met in the middle without thinning, a frank headband of hair over the eyes. Their foreheads were low, their heads of hair starting right above their eyebrows. Their eyes were deep-set, lips wide, and chins bold. Vipul thought of them as men in the process of turning into girls. The beauty in their faces was as yet ineffable; but there was some promise of it diminishing into the conventional kind in years to come.

Vipul did not talk to the girls on the way to and from school. He was too shy, because the girls were younger than he and from that very
fact there arose possibilities; and the girls, perhaps for the very same reason, seemed to be shyer still. Sameer, bolder than Vipul, did try to
talk to them. To everything he said, the girls first winced, in pain from embarrassment. They glanced at each other; they glanced away. Their lips and cheeks twitched in confusion. They looked so at bay and friable that if you touched them, they might crumble into heaps of coalfine.

Then one mumbled her reply, looking again at the other as she did so, measuring the other’s reaction, and giving the impression that it was
her sister who had asked the question. In this way any external attempt at conversing with them was, by virtue of their shyness, engulfed and made into a conversation of their own, and even Sameer sometimes gave up, looking beleaguered.

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Then the new boy joined the schoolgoers. He was tall and gangly, and wore spectacles. He sat in the back of the jeep, with all the girls, since Sameer and Vipul occupied the front seat in the mornings. There, in the back, he read a book. At the girls he would just not look. When they got into the boat, he continued to read the book, and Sushma didi’s gyrations did not affect his concentration. And then when they were on the ricksha, he read the book. The book was wrapped in the kind of dull brown paper, run through with fine stripes, that the teachers at school insisted the boys should use: covers in colour, or with pictures on them, were off-limits, looked upon as frivolous, unscholarly.

But the new boy was not reading a textbook. In the ricksha, Vipul saw that the pages of the book were ochre, and thick; the kind of pages
that smell sweetly of roasted peanuts; and when Vipul saw the typeface, he was certain: it was a Kenneth Anderson book.

So he said, ‘Are you reading The Tiger Roars?’

The new boy replied, ‘The Black Panther of Sivanipalli.’

‘Great book,’ Vipul said. ‘Have you read the story about the wasps in the tiger’s den?’


‘Or about the maned tiger of Chordi?’


‘You know, I wish I was Kenneth Anderson’s son.’

‘How could you be?’

‘I said I wish I was. His name is Donald. He shot forty panthers and fifteen bears before he was twenty-three years old. Imagine!’
The new boy imagined. And from the wistfulness that overtook his face it looked as though he, too, wished now that he had been Kenneth
Anderson’s son Donald.

Vipul said, ‘What’s your name?’

‘Pawan,’ the new boy said.



‘Mine’s the same! Section?’


‘Mine’s the same! What a thing! Good that you’re joining the same class. We can be friends.’

‘Yes,’ Pawan said, unmoved, and bent his head again to the realm of impenetrable liana-and-teak jungles, wounded hunted tigers
shattering the ravines with their swansong oo-oonghs, moonlit mountain streams flowing silver – all suffused with the sweet ochre
smell of roasted peanuts.

Excerpted with permission from A Speck of Coal Dust, written by Rohit Manchanda, and Fourth Estate.

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