“A Speck of Coal Dust” by Rohit Manchanda

A Speck of Coal Dust, Rohit Manchanda (Fourth Estate India, May 2024) A Speck of Coal Dust, Rohit Manchanda (Fourth Estate India, May 2024)

Long unavailable, Rohit Manchanda’s newly reissued A Speck of Coal Dust won the Betty Trask Award when it was first published (under a different titles) a generation ago. It takes place in the kingdom of childhood, not however to be confused with that of innocence. In this world, everything can be—and is meant to be—explored and experienced. A flower cannot be marvelled at; it must be touched. A snake cannot be avoided; it must be prodded. The result is a bildungsroman that is starkly refreshing, adding depth to a period and place relatively ignored in literature.

In the fictional village of Khajoori in Bihar, coal workers spend most of their day breathing in silica dust. When they emerge from the mines, more dust awaits, blowing through the air in a constant stream until it finally settles on the murky dam water. It’s a place where the days start early and end late, and large chunks of the afternoon are reserved for siestas, under the guise of saving oneself from the sun. In true fashion to the setting, the novel’s pace is languid. All energy must be reserved for the most fruitful ventures: killing mosquitos and reading American comics, which is what Vipul, the novel’s protagonist, spends most of his time doing. He’s the younger son of middle-class parents who relocated to Khajoori because of his father’s involvement in the coal boom, and part of the first generation to grow up in an independent India. The feeling of a brave new world is palpable.

Through the strange alchemy of right time and right place, Vipul’s surroundings embed themselves deep into his pores, leaking out in the form of memories and shifting the way he sees the world, a view tinted ochre with Bihari dust, leading to observations that are intrinsically Indian, such as the bureaucratic tendency toward overly-officious language:


Their ‘real’ names are meant only for official consumption: for schools, hospitals, railway reservations. At home using a real name is like calling the sky ‘firmament’: wasteful and pompous and cold.


In every chapter, a new character appears in Vipul’s life, shaking him from childhood to adolescence: A comic book-stealing swami who is supposed to make Vipul taller, a new classmate who faces physical assault with stoicism, and a missionary school teacher who introduces Vipul to BBC radio and Dickens. The latter, Father Rocqueforte at St Francis, is “the most aberrant of the missionaries”, and begins every class by scrawling the following onto a blackboard: “William Clarence Rocqueforte, Lithuanian Jew Turned Catholic.” He loves word puzzles, hates Americans, and conducts classes—which are supposed to be on Moral Science—as “condensed disquisitions” on whatever subject interests him.

Through a series of encounters, a friendship blossoms, culminating in a drive up to the quarry where Rocqueforte tells Vipul about the home he once knew, before “ninety-five per cent of the Jews in Lithuania” were murdered. He tells Vipul that his only hope is


Lithuania becomes independent during my lifetime, so I can go back and visit again the farm I grew up in, paddle once more my feet in the cold clear water of Nemunas.


Vipul is simultaneously sympathetic and resistant to this information. Hatred for the colonizer is intimately familiar, but for an Indian in the early 1970s, the Russians are emblems of friendship and safety. Rocqueforte, who is sick with diabetes, probably won’t live to see Lithuanian independence, an apparent pipe dream in his lifetime, but of course, a reality by the time of the book’s publication.

Small, internal quandaries such as this make up the bulk of the novel, tracing the thought processes that stretch a young mind to the point of nuance.


Eventually, Father Rocqueforte is sent, unwillingly, to America. In the last few meetings before he leaves, Rocqueforte pushes Vipul to think about the role of missionaries in India (”Decimating Hinduism. Evangelist marauders.”) and to interrogate the books he reads. After he leaves, Vipul learns his most important lesson from Rocqueforte: nothing stays the same. And with the brutal shock of change, Vipul steps further away from his childhood.

At once intimate and sprawling, tender and brutal, A Speck of Coal Dust is a beautiful portrait of the moments from childhood that dictate who we become.

Mahika Dhar is a writer, essayist, and book reviewer based in New Delhi. She is the creator of bookcrumbs and her short stories have appeared in Seaglass Literary, Through Lines and Minimag among others.