Books

The future is not so funny

Jai Arjun Singh is the author of The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves
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Chowdhury’s dry humour is on view but his second novel reads like an adjunct to his brilliant first
Murder With Bengali Characteristics: A Novel | Shovon Chowdhury | Aleph Book Company | Pages 184 | Rs 395
It was once said of Saki that his humour writing was so intense it could induce literary dyspepsia: you couldn’t read too much at one go, because a pleasant sort of reader’s fatigue would set in. I sometimes feel the same way about Shovon Chowdhury, whose 2013 novel The Competent Authority, a sprawling speculative tale set in a dystopian future India, was one of the most singular achievements in our recent fiction—so inventive, so packed with funny ideas, that lesser writers may have tried to spin full-fledged stories out of Chowdhury’s parenthetical asides (such as the one about Bangalore escaping a nuke attack because the Chinese had aimed for the airport region, figuring the city would be somewhere nearby!).

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Chowdhury’s new novel, located in the same 2030s world, sometimes reads like an elaborate outtake. Well under half the size of the first book, Murder with Bengali Characteristics moves the spotlight from the Competent Authority-ruled India to… Bengal, which is now a protectorate of China. The plot centres on an old teacher’s murder in a Maoist-ridden Liberated Zone, and an investigation that leads Inspector An Li and his cohorts through the Protectorate’s messy political hierarchies. Meanwhile, two businessmen bumble about trying to prevent China and India from going to war; it would badly affect their mining operations in Chhattisgarh.

The wry Chowdhury humour is on view from the opening paragraph. There are hundreds of lines like this one: ‘Because [Information Officer] Crazy Wu spent so much time making knowledge disappear, no one knew more than him.’ As a satire on national characteristics—and a comment on our stereotyping—this book reminds me of Zac O’Yeah’s Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, set in a Europe colonised by India. Much of the humour and tension in both novels comes from the cultural contrast between ruler and ruled. A passage in Chowdhury’s book, where the Chinese police unemotionally deal with a loud, profanity-spewing Calcutta crowd, underlines the difference (‘Their movements were precise. They spoke very little. As usual, they took all the fun out of it’), but when it comes to private crimes like murder, it is the Chinese who are intimate while Indians don’t get personal (‘Chairman Mao taught us the virtue of using our own hands. In India, you hire someone.’).

This is an outlandish yet very familiar world: one where an ancient leader has been kept alive and venerated decades after he had to be surgically removed from the chief minister’s chair (no, really—the chair had partially fused with his backside), where ideologies are defined in dire terms (‘once no one has any fish, everyone will be equal. This is the basic principle behind communism’) and the essence of governance is that you must never let criminals out of your grip. A Maoist leader reads a sentient copy of Stardust in his jungle retreat. Drones hurl threats in ways that suggest they have been watching B-movies. The Chinese destroy Kali temples— not a good way of endearing themselves to Bengalis— so they can end the ‘thug threat’. A car is allowed freedom of speech and a firewall may have feelings, but people aren’t encouraged to read; no software can translate the ‘high- flown’ Ananda Bazaar Patrika anyway. And below the breathless madness of the premise, there is—as in the first book— a real sympathy for history’s undervalued ‘little people’ who, with some luck, might be rays of hope in a despot-filled world.

So much of this is stimulating in theory, and yet, much as I wanted to love Murder with Bengali Characteristics, I was underwhelmed. In part, this may have to do with a prior expectation that this would be a murder mystery. Yet even if you aren’t expecting an Agatha Christie-like denouement, you may feel the book meanders. This is a collection of encounters, interrogations and pen portraits, all mostly done well on their own terms, but sometimes this feels like all it is, with each chapter something of a standalone, only tenuously tied to its neighbours. There are a few too many people for a short book, the narrative becomes diffused, and it isn’t always easy to keep track of who did and said what.

It doesn’t help that no character here is as delightful as the vulgar, malcontent policeman Ram Pandey from The Competent Authority, and no subplot as intriguing (or as moving) as the time-travelling one in the earlier book, where people with special powers find they can go back to, say, 1948 to try and prevent Gandhi’s assassination. There’s a danger of this turning into a mini-review of The Competent Authority, but what to do? Murder with Bengali Characteristics may have worked better if it had—in a shortened form—been published as an adjunct, a sort of DVD extra, to its predecessor.

(Jai Arjun Singh is the author of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983)

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