A Fine, Well-Crafted, Novel Work
Economic Survey 16-17 reminds us of Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ but without any characters
Once one gets past the dismal bits about the dismal science in Arvind Subramanian’s latest work of neo-realism, Economic Survey 2016-17, it becomes quite clear that the chief economic adviser’s literary life has finally taken wing. Unlike, perhaps, the Indian economy which he has used as a backdrop for his epic narrative.
Subramanian uses the traditional device of the epigraph to guide the reader tonally, something which in the hands of a lesser writer would have come across at best as mechanical name-dropping and at worst as the sign of a natural name-dropper.
Like past masters Gore Vidal and Henry Miller, Subramanian pays attention to chapter titles. Section titles – The Perspective, The Proximate, The Peristent – are more a tip of the hat to the 19th century American novel rather than to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. He starts ironically enough with the very ‘economics’sounding chapter ‘Economic Outlook and Policy Challenges.’ The reader is immediately made aware that the world of economics is the setting in which Subramanian has located his story.
But before we get too embroiled in the post-modernist’s playful use of MSME andd EBITDA — it could well have been titled Umberto Eco Survey 2016-17 — which he carefully explains in a delightful expansion to be ‘Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortisation,’ we find ourselves facing Chapter 2, The Economic Vision for Precocious, Cleavaged India.
The writer here is clearly tapping both the bodice-ripping paperbacks of romance writers Johanna Lindsay and Catherine Coulter as well as French painter Eugène Delacroix’s iconic work, ‘Liberty Leading the People.’ But instead of bosoms, revolutionary or otherwise, Subramanian uses the clever metaphor of policy reforms.
In the thrilling chapter on demonetisation, the writer kicks off with a quote by the 19th century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna Paramhansa: “Taka mati, mati taka” (Money is mud, mud is money). Astute (Bengali) readers will hear the faint echo of Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s crie de guerre, “ma, mati, manush” (mother, land, people), thereby sensing the writer’s covert registering of criticism against the central government’s drive to turn India cashless.
Some pages later, Subramanian even riffs Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s phrase “foggy ruins of time” from the latter’s Mr Tambourine Man, thereby ticking the pop cultural as well as the literary box in one single sentence.
There are other references that allude to the highbrow such as the phrase in quotations “give time to time,” a favourite of the late Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, whose consuming interest in ‘numeric, linguistic and classificationary systems’ the author of Economic Survey shares. This significantly features in the chapter titled, ‘The Festering Twin Balance Sheet Problem,’ that has Sherlock Holmes written all over. Subramanian quotes Mahatma Gandhi three times, underlining cheekily the way chief economic advisers and finance ministers make it mandatory to quote the man whose face still appears on Indian currency. Instead, this writer quotes St Augustine, “Lord, give me chastity and continence but not yet,” a sentiment which some less literary reader may recognise from 1990s English pop singer Robbie Williams’ song Make Me Pure.
Subramanian deserves special applause for quoting Rabindranath Tagore but not his super-overused “where the mind is without fear” lines. Economic Survey 2016-17 is a work that reminds us of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy but without any characters, not an easy avant-garde act to pull off.
The writer of this accomplished, well-crafted and clever work starts a chapter on ‘Other Indias’ with a quote from his namesake Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.
The reader is left tantalisingly tense wondering what the result would have been if the author’s name had been Chetan Subramanian. This is a fine book that you can read both curled up in bed as well as while banging your head in an intensely post-existentialist fashion.