Books: Profile

Upamanyu Chatterjee: Oddball Savant

Rohit Chawla
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On the 30th anniversary of the book that launched him, Upamanyu Chatterjee seeks his own revenge by shooing away holy cows with a new novella

The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian | Upamanyu Chatterjee | Speaking Tiger | 127 pages | Rs 350

UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE would never win a congeniality contest. He’d, of course, say that the question of winning would never arise as wouldn’t deign to participate. But readers and acquaintances will admit that the 59-year-old author seems to have no desire to curry friends or influence people. But that is why his company is such a pleasure; it isn’t that of the needy or the sly. He isn’t interested in being part of one school or another, he is not out and about peddling his wares, and he rolls his eyes at ‘colleges of literature’. The best part is that his irreverence is not artifice, it is simply his default setting; what appears like impudence to us, to him is discernment. He sees the world in shades of dark, and debauchery as a norm. Oddballs attract him, whether they are stoners jerking off into napkins, sexual deviants fetishising wandering sadhus or those for whom there is no greater joy than killing.

His disregard for holy cows now comes brilliantly to the fore with his latest novella The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian (Speaking Tiger; 127 pages; Rs 350). In around 100 pages, spanning 1949 to 1972, he takes us to Batia town to which the upstanding ICS officer Madhusudan Sen has just been transferred. Magistrate of Batia, Mr Sen, like his Bengali brethren, likes his eggs, sausages and beef stew. But finds himself sequestered in a house located on Temple Road, a strictly vegetarian zone. It requires some jugaad (a babu speciality) to arrange meat for his quarters. He seeks the help of his subordinate mamlatdar Nadeem Dalvi. But the mamlatdar and his family of six, plus a dog, are burned to death. A post-mortem of the corpses reveals that that the cause of death isn’t fire; instead, the skulls ‘appear to have been repeatedly struck by a hard heavy instrument, typically a spade or the back of the axe’. Sen vows to turn vegetarian till justice is served.

This story has the same deftness of touch of Chatterjee’s debut masterpiece. And with 2018 being the 30th anniversary of English, August (1988) it seems only appropriate to celebrate with an English, August Lite. Speaking of his characters, Chatterjee says, “I’d no problem with Basant Kumar (the main accused). He is unpolished; not particularly sorry for what he has done.” And then, after a long silence, “But I was very very apprehensive about Madhusudan Sen. I was keen to get Madhusudan Sen right. I can’t expect the world to remember English, August. But I can hint at Agastya’s lineage. If [readers] get it, they get it. Maybe six months later, they’ll get it. I let that be. It was important to suggest someone upright, so correct as to be ruthless.”

It would be disingenuous not to confess here that when I first read The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian, I realised there was a link to English, August but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. To stencil it out, I returned to Chatterjee’s debut novel, and what a pleasure it was. It felt like one was on a treasure hunt, seeking out clues of the father in the son and the son in the father. In English, August, one learns more about the Madhusudan Sen of The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian: ‘Life for him was a serious, rather noble business, a blend of Marcus Aurelius and the Reader’s Digest, and on occasions, Agastya felt quite apart from him.’ Agastya realises that his father will never be able to understand him or his life as ‘men were, ultimately, islands; each had his own universe, immense only to himself, far beyond the grasp or the interest of others’. Father and son might be in the same profession (as is often the case), but their temperaments differ (as is always the case).

“The title The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian is a joke. I hoped people would buy it thinking, ‘Oh my God, it is about the cow fixation.’ It is not”

Revisiting English, August, one is reminded why it is so timeless—because Chatterjee does boredom so well. To be human is to be bored. The genius of the novel is that it succeeds in making tedium the stuff of literature. Chatterjee alchemises ennui into all that it is not ‘lol’ entertainment. Who hasn’t lain in bed and stared at ceilings? But with busyness seen as close to holiness, we dare not admit to gecko gazing.

Today, popular culture and literature might be awash with anti-heroes and anti-heroines, but in the 80s not giving a damn had no cred, heroes were those fighting the good fight, not those lazing in bed. If Hamlet was the prince of indecision, Agastya is the sage of acceptance (with a little help from cannabis).

English, August has often been compared to JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but that is a misreading of both. Holden Caulfield deems the rest of the world ‘phony’, as opposed to his authentic and genuine self. Agastya has no illusions; he knows we are all equal parts phoney. The Catcher in the Rye is the security blanket of adolescents, because to be young is to consider yourself unique and thus a misfit. English, August is the salve of the stoic, who treats impostors like sorrow and joy alike.

Even today Chatterjee is best remembered for English, August, but he has five other novels to his name— ‘written when no was looking’ (notes the author bio of The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian). A remarkable achievement, considering that he has served 30 years in the Indian Administrative Service, retiring (‘early and honourably’) in 2016. Turning out a book every few years, his other works include The Last Burden (1993), The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Weight Loss (2006), Way to Go (2010) and Fairy Tales at Fifty (2014).

I MEET CHATTERJEE ON a muggy Delhi afternoon. The first rains have brought damp but not respite. He is dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and moves his chair around the drawing room before he feels it’s satisfactorily positioned under the fan. He introduces ‘buddi (old woman)’, a dog fast asleep beside the carpet. “What is her name?” I ask. “Julie in Block A,” he says, “Bella in Block B.” This is going to be a fun interview, I tell myself.

“I don’t trust machines, the battery is down, this, that and the other. There is something I find—you become modest using just a pad and a fountain pen. There is no lugging around 20 gadgets”

Authors are often known to be loners, but Chatterjee has adopted the entire repertoire of the outsider. He starts his sentences with gusto, but they often melt into mumbles and a pffft. Over the next hour or so, he goads other holy cows. The ‘gau rakshaks’—they are not worth talking about, they are “scum”; literature festivals—more often than not “terribly dull”; most Indian fiction in English— “rubbish”; running of a household—“soul-killing crap”; socialising— “meeting people is not my idea of fun”; the movie Queen— “terribly cringe-making”; instant communication—“waste of time”; machines—untrustworthy; infotech technicians—“semi-illiterate computerwaalas ”. He delivers his jibes with such a poker face that it is impossible to not be amused.

It is his writing that he wants to talk about. In 2016, he wrote the short story Girl, a fictional account of the Arushi Talwar case (published in Open, 23, December ). He felt compelled to write the story because what he was reading in the newspapers and watching on television simply did not add up. He says, “I just wanted to do it from the point of view of the loss of innocence of her friends. Someone you are copying homework from in class is suddenly dead. No one cares, no one bothers, apart from what they did to the parents, for that child.” He adds with a sudden fervour, “It is gone, and for everyone who knew her, it is gone, that innocence is shattered. No one reads fiction, but anyway, that is [what] I wanted to do with the story.”

The other story that has long fascinated him is the serial murders of Nithari, which occurred in the house of businessman Moninder Singh Pandher. He says, “I know people who say, ‘He was my roommate’. Oh my god! (he chortles) That was the angle I wanted to take. Someone you know in college, how he’s been murdering little people.” He believes now it is too late to do that story as he wouldn’t be able to get access to it. He also feels that it would be difficult to do such a story “without being cannibalistic yourself”, as the moral stand you might want to take will get lost in the blood and gore.

Having recently retired, Chatterjee says he now runs the household, which essentially means haggling with the fruitwaala and waiting for the bijliwaala. The whistles of trains arriving and departing from Nizamuddin Station punctuate our conversation. He concedes that the district life of a bureaucrat is surreal in many ways and lends itself to literature. Delhi, on the other hand, is just madness. He finds the District Gazetteers of yore informative and valuable. But he feels the roles of administrators have now changed, “Today you’ve no time because you are just doing junk. You are busy with the visit of a minister, it is often two ministers. It is terrible.”

Revisiting English, August, one is reminded why it is so timeless-because Chatterjee does boredom so well. To be human is to be bored. The genius of the novel is that it succeeds in making tedium the stuff of literature

He spends his retired days with books. He is immersed in French and Bengali literature, realising that a language is a worldview in itself. Reading Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath in Bengali has proved to be a real eye-opener. He says, “It is so right-wing and virulently anti-Muslim. I realised that in the translation I’d read, each time there is an anti- Muslim reference it has been changed to anti-British. This is one of the things I’d never have got if I had just read it in English. Let’s say there are thousands of people who will read the translation and think this is a great anti-British, anti-imperialist work. He is one of the founding fathers of Bengali literature, but he is so anti-Muslim.” He is amazed how Chattopadhyay continues to be celebrated in so many circles.

The Continent of Circe by Nirad C Chaudhuri is the other book he’s recently read that he finds “completely mad” and “anti-Indian” and its author “hysterical”.

OVER THE LAST few years, Chatterjee has been crafting his collection of short stories. Ravi Singh, the publisher and co-founder of Speaking Tiger, encouraged him to publish The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian in the interim. Writing is a slow process for anyone, but seems to be more so for Chatterjee who still uses a fountain pen (ballpoints are only for the plane) on foolscap paper. He admits he should become “modern”, but also finds this the most foolproof way. He first scribbles his paragraphs many times, then he writes it down very neatly on paper, and when it is done, he types it on the computer, and in the process keeps the grain and discards the chaff. The handwritten manuscript—which he has of all his books—is the one he trusts. He says, “There is something I find, even if I say so myself—you become modest using just a pad and a fountain pen. There is no lugging around of computer and ear phones, 20 other things, the shit people do with gadgets.”

Over the years, Chatterjee’s family has spent nearly three decades in central Delhi. But his wife and he are now readying for a stint in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His next book will be the volume of short stories, but readers will continue to hope for the many returns of Madhusudan Sen and his son Agastya.