NO­TIONAL SER­VICE

A funny take on the whim­si­cal realm of bu­reau­cratic In­dia through the life of a PA

India Today - - LEISURE - By Bunny Su­raiya

Awel­come suc­ces­sor to Upa­manyu Chat­ter­jee’s English, Au­gust, Amitabha Bagchi’s The House­holder is more than a thor­oughly en­joy­able novel. It is also a primer for those who find they can make nei­ther head nor tail of the pow­ers that gov­ern us and the way our an­ar­chic bu­reau­cratic sys­tem func­tions. If ever you’ve been mys­ti­fied by the whim­si­cal rules framed by the ‘ sarkar’ from time to time, take heart from the fact that “these rules and codes serve only two pur­poses— one is to make all of us feel like our gov­ern­ment is reg­u­lat­ing things, and the other is to give them a big stick with which to beat us”.

Naresh Kumar, the pro­tag­o­nist, who has been PA to Mr Asthana, an IAS of­fi­cer for some 20 years, has stoutly up­held the reg­u­la­tory na­ture of the bu­reau­cracy and is des­tined to feel the stick in all its sting­ing hu­mil­i­a­tion of a public ser­vant who has fallen foul of the pow­ers that be. Through the ups and downs of Kumar’s ca­reer, Bagchi paints an en­ter­tain­ing picture of life in bu­reau­cratic In­dia. The bribes he takes as well as hands up the lad­der with an en­gag­ing amoral­ity, the syco­phan­tic grov­el­ling he doles out du­ti­fully as well as re­ceives righ­teously, his fa­tal­is­tic ac­cep­tance of the low­er­ing of his sta­tus in the eyes of his peers and in­fe­ri­ors when he is or­dered sus­pended by a per­fid­i­ous min­is­ter— all of these rites of pas­sage are re­counted with warmth, em­pa­thy and a de­light­ful sense of hu­mour by a writer who sees bu­reau­cratic In­dia for what it is and re­fuses to be judg­men­tal about its flaws.

The set pieces in which stock char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions make their ap­pear­ance are funny, all the more so for be­ing nar­rated in a dead­pan man­ner— the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with whether to ad­dress some­one as ‘ ji’ or ‘ sa­heb’; the rit­ual vis­its by Cab­i­net min­is­ters and Op­po­si­tion lead­ers to a Babaji who pre­scribes gem­stones to im­prove their for­tunes; the sweat- drench­ing fear that a call from a min­is­ter can in­duce in a mem­ber of the ‘ steel frame’. But even as you chuckle, you be­gin to un­der­stand the real rea­sons why we In­di­ans are, in the ubiq­ui­tous phrase, like that only. Amitabha Bagchi has held up a mir­ror in which we can see our­selves— warts and all. It is a trib­ute to his open- mind­ed­ness that we don’t de­spair of our­selves as a re­sult.

THE HOUSE­HOLDER

by AMITABHA BAGCHI Fourth Es­tate Price: RS 399 Pages: 239

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