A Fine, Well-Crafted, Novel Work

Eco­nomic Sur­vey 16-17 re­minds us of Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suit­able Boy’ but with­out any char­ac­ters

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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.


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