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