HISTORYAS COM­EDY

The ab­sur­di­ties of po­lit­i­cal In­dia come alive in a de­but which is satire at its best

India Today - - LEISURE - By Sandi­pan Deb

In 2025, In­dia, led by the Iron Man, en­gaged in an ill- ad­vised war with China. In­dian nu­clear mis­siles turned out to be duds due to some mi­nor cor­rup­tion at lower lev­els in the govern­ment’s pur­chase depart­ment. Mum­bai was oblit­er­ated, and Delhi too, nearly. Ben­gal se­ceded and be­came a Chi­nese pro­tec­torate. By the mid- 2030s, a lady we all know, from the coun­try’s most hal­lowed po­lit­i­cal fam­ily, had be­come prime min­is­ter, but with lit­tle real power. All of which rested with the Com­pe­tent Au­thor­ity, a bu­reau­crat who had brought all govern­ment de­part­ments un­der the Bureau of Re­con­struc­tion “un­til fur­ther no­tice, or the com­ple­tion of re­con­struc­tion, which­ever came sooner”. The Bureau was “ex­pand­ing rapidly be­cause the Chi­nese had left them an aw­ful lot to re­con­struct”. The Com­pe­tent Au­thor­ity ruled.

This is the dystopic land­scape Shovon Chowd­hury’s in­sanely bril­liant first novel is set in. Imag­ine a mix­ture of Jonathan Swift’s cor­ro­sive irony, the hal­lu­ci­na­tory imag­i­na­tion of Philip K. Dick, and Tom Sharpe’s grue­some slap­stick. Add to that a deep knowl­edge of the un­ex­pur­gated his­tory of In­dia in the last 100 years, and what you get is a lethal work of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion that wrings its hands in de­spair even as it makes you roll on the floor laugh­ing.

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to sum­marise this mad Hierony­mus Bosch novel, with its finely de­tailed grotesque world and in­nu­mer­able throw­away ref­er­ences— a “kal­madi” is slang for Rs 100 crore ( I’ll stay mum on what the com­mon noun “sibal” means), the Shaka­hari Sena goes around vi­o­lently im­pos­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, Art of Breath­ing is a wildly pop­u­lar spir­i­tual move­ment. It is un­likely that ev­ery reader will no­tice all the author’s winks— I am sure I missed many— but hope­fully, some will be in­trigued enough to find out for them­selves a few de­tails of 20th cen­tury po­lit­i­cal his­tory that are off the of­fi­cially prop­a­gated

ver­sion ( How many of us have heard of Suhrawardy, and even among those who have, how many know about his con­nec­tion with Desh­bandhu Chit­taran­jan Das; all right, how many of us have heard of Chit­taran­jan Das?). What one can, how­ever, say with con­fi­dence is that The Com­pe­tent Au­thor­ity will of­fend hu­mour­less peo­ple across the spec­trum— from politi­cians of ev­ery hue to bu­reau­crats to god­men to cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives. This is glo­ri­ous icon­o­clasm armed with a deep em­pa­thy for ev­ery un­der­dog ( in­clud­ing a very nice Al­sa­tian).

The story, in bare- bones form, is as fol­lows. Ten- year- old slum dweller Pin­too gets his left hand chopped off by the com­man­dos of blue- chip cor­po­ra­tion Bank of Bod­ies, which is belch­ing prof­its sup­ply­ing body parts to the su­per- rich. But the am­pu­ta­tion trig­gers off strange psy­chic pow­ers in the boy: he can now “push” things in space and time. Pin­too wants to “make things bet­ter”, and re­alises that the only way to do it is to change his­tory. He iden­ti­fies three events; if they did not take place, In­dia would be dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent. Th­ese flash­points are the as­sas­si­na­tion of Ma­hatma Gandhi, Di­rect Ac­tion Day in Cal­cutta in 1946 ( the first State- abet­ted com­mu­nal car­nage in In­dia), and Pokhran II. Sep­a­rate

sub­plots bring three men to Pin­too, and he sends them back in time to al­ter the past: He­monto Chat­ter­jee, a timid mi­nor bu­reau­crat; Ram Manohar Pande, a cor­rupt mus­cles- for- brains cop ( a char­ac­ter so vile that he is ut­terly lovable); and Ali, the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of the al Qaeda. Mean­while, the Com­pe­tent Au­thor­ity is de­scend­ing rapidly into crazed mega­lo­ma­nia and hatch­ing a mon­strous plot that he be­lieves will cre­ate a New Na­tion, but in ef­fect, de­stroy what­ever is left of In­dia, and the Prime Min­is­ter is try­ing des­per­ately to pre­vent Ar­maged­don. Can Pin­too’s re­luc­tant agents make In­dia a bet­ter place be­fore it ceases to ex­ist? Re­veal­ing more would be play­ing spoiler, and the ride is worth it, as Chowd­hury jug­gles a worm’s eye view of key­stone his­tor­i­cal events with epic weird­ness. I was mildly dis­ap­pointed with the end­ing ( though it is sat­is­fy­ing at an emo­tional level), and there are a few loose ends, but a sort- of- se­quel, one is told, is in the off­ing, and that should tie them up.

But for­get th­ese mi­nor quib­bles. In its scope, am­bi­tion, imag­i­na­tion and sheer read­ing de­light, The Com­pe­tent Au­thor­ity is quite sim­ply the novel of the decade about In­dia.

THE COM­PE­TENT AU­THOR­ITY

by Shovon Chowd­hury Aleph Price: RS 495 Pages: 454

BE­TWEEN THE COV­ERS The Com­pe­tent Au­thor­ity rules a dystopic land­scape in 2025 in a bril­liant first novel which blends Jonathan Swift, Philip K. Dick and Tom Sharpe.

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