AT first you groan at the thought of getting to grips with the details of yet another novel about a dystopian India set sometime in the future, with not a blind bit of chance that the future is going to be any better. Perhaps it has something to do with the dystopian present, where the news is not good either, run as it is by what looks like The Incompetant Authority.
What kind of book is it, you tend you ask yourself querulously, that is “ripped out, naked and quivering, from the headlines of the last decade”? And most of the characters seem mad, with the ultimate insult being a narrative form that dips and ducks and zigzags across timelines like a Nano with a lunatic at the wheel, driving to his own rules and managing to stay alive , white-knuckling it most of the way!
Because you are dipping into the tome at random places, disheartened by its size, sometime into the exercise of reading it, you realise that the characters have become familiar, that they are rather nice, no damn it, some of them are downright engaging. And you are reading because each episode seems to make sense on its own and reflects the no-less dysfunctional world we live in now, except that of course, in 2050 (or thereabouts), there are no more roundabouts left, only swings of mood that one is not expected to justify, only indulge!
About the same time, you realize that the lunatic at the wheel of this amazing offering, that could have been bitter indeed, is amazingly and determinedly funny, that his “blistering satire” on Indian society has a gentle edge, and that his premise about the past, the present and the future being a seamless whole, while not original, actually offers the first glimpse of a pale dawn. This allows you to hunker down and re-read the book as it should be, from start to finish, at which point the word “superlative” actually begins to wander through your review! For he is a man who never seems to get a word wrong when it comes to characterization in particular, and long after you put it down, the protagonists in the book wander around your mental landscape, making no excuses for being there and asking for no quarters as they continue living their strange lives. So…
It’s the future, mid century, and the worst has happened. China is the culprit, having reduced most of north India to rubble. Bombay is gone, Lutyens Delhi is a huge gaping, smoking hole where the unmentionable has happened.
Bengal has seceded and China calls the shots there, as it does in the northeast which has been taken over for obvious reasons (the eyes, stupid), no-one knows what’s happening in the south, but it is pretty much untouched and in any case, the Competent Authority who has used the System to place himself in a position of unchallenged – well Authority – is interested only in one thing. Obliterating what remains of north India, his kingdom, so he can re-create a country more in tune with his visions for himself. This means starting from scratch with a small population so that, for the next 100 years the Bureau of Reconstruction has enough work to keep it occupied . Of course, the CA himself intends to live forever.
The landscape is bizarre. Delhi itself is broken up into the area governed by the man in power and Shanti Nagar, where the maimed, the lame, the halt and the mutants live in a comparatively gentle world, ruled by a hijda with astounding insight into the human psyche. And it is from here that the real hero of the book emerges. Pintoo is 12 years old, has just been subjected to the worst tragedy of his life, and in getting through it experiences a strange unsettling and resettling of nerves and muscle-fibres, corpuscles and neurons that leaves him with the ability to bend people to his will and time travel.
That’s when the idea takes him over – if he can send someone into the past to undo bits of it, would the present be any different? And what would he change? Subjected to random bits of schooling, he fixates upon certain events that his elders seem to think should never have taken place – Direct Action Day, Calcutta 1942, for e\instance, which is when true Hindu-Muslim enmity was sown. The assassination of Gandhi in 1947. And of course India’s own entry into the nuclear club with the exploding of two bombs in the Rajasthan desert, how about we fix it so that the second one didn’t happen, thus lessening China’s fury and India’s own sense of hubris, so that the wipe-out didn’t happen?
And so Pintoo sends back his three-man army – a CBI officer named Chatterjee , a remorseful jihadist named Ali and Pande, corrupt, vicious, possibly the funniest of the lot. For make no mistake, this is a funny book and if you don’t laugh, there is no hope for you.
Cleverly plotted, knowledgeable in its handling of the characters, this is the work of a man who is an observer making connections as he goes along, trying not to scare you with his conclusions. In his hands, brutality, death, destruction and man’s illimitable cruelty to man take on such epic proportions that they cease of have meaning in the traditional sense. That’s why they also cease to instill fear and so the book’s protagonists are able to accept the unbearable present with a certain amount of equanimity as they prepare to go into a past from which they might never return unless they have carried out the task to which they have been assigned. Even Pande, particularly Pande, who has not a single, decent bone in his body and whose fury at being at the mercy of a mutant 12-yeaqr-old is beautiful to behold.
They are all there – the Megalomaniac, the PM, the General, the Money Man, the Sycophant, the Fixer, the Industrialist and the Socialite, recognizable as such by the extreme development of one-sided personalities. Chowdhury makes them believable because already they exist among us. Then he puts the onus about doing something about the situation upon the little people – us. It’s enough to send you into a fat, pouty-lipped sulk to rival the Competent Authority when he realizes it may not be so easy to get China to bomb what’s left of India to smithereens so that he can get on with the job of re-building!
The Competent Authority
By Shovon Chowdhury
Published by Aleph Book Company
Pages 454. Price Rs.495
Into a mindset
IN terms of storyline, this is a slight book. Two novellas, one actually more a long short story, take you into Sikkim and tell two very different tales. One is set in the immutable present, unfolding a tale of shocking violence and the response to it from the forces of law and order. The other is a folk tale that achieves a grandness in spite of its length. Both leave you wanting more, and that is perhaps, the measure of this book’s success.
For it is successful in bringing you a modern day reading of how the small and the particular can be easily expanded into the large and the universal because under the skin, we are all exactly alike. And this goes for the past and the future as well.
In the first story, a police constable’s home coming to a village above the Rangeet river in Sikkim, on New Year’s Eve, armed with a cake for once, explodes in unimaginable savagery and death. But that’s just the beginning of a series of events that take you into the heart of Sikkimese society and the lives of its ordinary people, exposing mindsets and attitudes that are a reflection of a tiny state used to thinking of itself as different because of its mountain-locked position. Shrestha is conscious that he has just “two inches of ivory” to play with, and so he makes every word count.
In the way that crime figures and solutions are handled, Sikkim is exactly like India. With a woman in charge of the law at the level of the district, mores and morals give way to practicalities and compromise, actions don’t necessarily lead to consequence and responses tend to leave you marveling at the rightness of decisions that are hard without being harsh.
In the second story, Shrestha mines a rich vein of folk tale, myth and oral history to bring simple-minded, clean-hearted, fiercely loyal Tontem to life as aq man who doggedly follows his instincts, all of which are to be good, honest and true to his salt. The rewards he receives are commensurate with his dreams, and if they don’t fit into some modern value system that recognizes only material benefits, they are immensely satisfying, none the less.
Once again, this book is a reason to crow about the kind of writing that is emerging from the sub-continent, equally from the north, the south, the east and the west. We are going to hear much more from this particular young author.
The King’s Harvest
By Chetan Raj Shrestha
Published by Aleph Book Company
Pages 150. Price Rs 350