6 June 2015

Book Review: Red riding hoods

A new book review, for India Today:

Bengal becomes a protectorate of China in Shovon Chowdhury's splendid satire, with its recognisable absurdities stretched to their logical limits

Murder With Bengali Characteristics
By Shovon Chowdhury
Aleph, 204pp, Rs. 395
On the morning after I finished Shovon Chowdhury's second book, I had to run an errand in Delhi's Nehru Place. As I walked through, the stall-owners were setting up their displays of pen drives and mobile phone covers from giant cardboard cartons held together by layers of melting brown sticky tape. I saw a young salesman hawking his wares: "Software, Software! Windows, Windows!" In Asia's largest IT market, the E-Future beckons from every signboard -- if one can just avoid the piles of garbage, the attendant flies and the puddles slowly streaking their way across the vitrified pavements.
It felt like I had just seen the world through Shovon Chowdhury's eyes.
Chowdhury's first book, The Competent Authority (2013), was stunning dystopian fiction, expertly plonking us down in a future so ludicrous and yet so perfectly recognisable as a version of the present that one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. (One laughs. Crying would be too draining.) It is circa 2033. Having bombed Bombay and large parts of India, the Chinese run Bengal as a protectorate, maintaining friendly relations with the Maoists who control much of what remains of the subcontinent. The police are now openly hireable. The prime minister, a rather recognisable woman "related to a long line of PMs", is the TV-friendly figurehead of the Indian government. But the army and any remaining government functions are actually controlled by an anonymous bureaucrat called the Competent Authority. "It was a temporary arrangement. Normal service would be resumed as soon as reconstruction was complete. But the contractors were very incompetent. He had expected far more progress in the last ten years."
In Chowdhury's post-nuclear New New Delhi, only the hardiest Bungalowpur ladies now risk radiation hazards to hunt for bargains in the once-central shopping hub of the Dead Circle. The privatisation of medical services has reached its acme: the rich now buy their private doctors straight from Slaves R Us, and any new body parts they need from the Bank of Bodies (BoB). In Delhi, the BoB's Medical Military Commandos harvest these from 'donors' in Shanti Nagar, a semi-independent neighbourhood that had "sprung up on the outskirts of the city around 10 years ago, soon after the Chinese nuked New Delhi, after the Dalai Lama was reincarnated on Indian soil and the prime minister had publicly fed the child a small piece of dhokla with peppermint chutney".
Having launched us into this universe with a fabulous plot involving two small boys and the BoB, Chowdhury breezed through 450 pages with ceaseless wry humour, a string of memorable characters, and some remarkably moving episodes of time travel in the opposite direction.
At 200-odd pages, Murder with Bengali Characteristics is much slimmer, and the plot slightly less multi-pronged. It is set in the Bengal Protectorate, where a minor character from the previous book -- mining magnate and Bungalowpur resident Sanjeev Verma -- has arrived for a crucial strategy meeting with his business partner, Agarwal. Like before, this is a world perfectly realised in its details. A hapless Chinese governor rules under the expertly befuddling advice of his executive assistant Ganguly, the Party has returned to power if not hegemony (the influential mass leader Pishi has been put in a mental institution as an opponent of the Party), and Lalbazar Police Station is home to a contingent of Chinese-born police  officers, including our primary protagonist Inspector An Li.
Like Delhi in the previous book, this is a Bengal with its recognisable absurdities stretched to their logical limits. The waiters in Park Street's OlyPub are now in their nineties ("The unions were strong here"); the Party boys miss the old days so much that they have weekly exhibition matches in physical and verbal violence, acting both as themselves and as the late Opposition; and membership of the Calcutta Club continues to play a disproportionate role in influencing public events.
Of course, not everything is logical: most delightfully mad is the vision of Indian IFCL cricketers being pushed to unprecedented levels of fitness by merciless Chinese coaches ("There were rumours of the death penalty for failure"); the ancient ex-Party boss Bijli Bose being "regenerated from some DNA found on a whiskey glass"; and an episode involving a talking cat.
I have to confess that while I enjoyed this book thoroughly, I found myself less than moved by its central narrative premise. This might be for the terribly prosaic reason that the hard-boiled detective at its heart is rather too hard-boiled, and dare I say it, impermeably Chinese.
Chowdhury's scathing humour, though, has lost none of its bite. Here is Agarwal, admiring Ganguly in a silent stream-of-consciousness: "Such judgment. They didn't manufacture officers like him any more. Most of them were very low quality people. All they wanted was flats, premium SUVs and American passports for their children. The Chinese ruling classes were very similar. It was true what his guru-ji said. They were all becoming one." This is a brilliant writer who can transport us to an effortlessly imagined future and make it a mirror for the present we can't bear to look in the face. I'm waiting for the next Delhi instalment.

Published in India Today. 

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