Only in fiction are human lives precious,” writes Upamanyu Chatterjee towards the end of his new book, arresting in free fall an improbable heroine as she steps off the parapet of the 14th floor of a skyscraper. He does this by the simple stratagem of dropping the insufferable creature from the plot, instead of letting her crash to the pavement. But in reality, as distinct from fiction, nothing is precious. In the words of its author, Fairy Tales at Fifty is about “the horrible pointlessness of everyday reality”.
Realities are relative. “For the poor, being horrible is a necessity. The rich are horrible out of boredom.” Chatterjee reprises the familiar devices (he calls them “clichés”) of folklore, fairytale, myth and popular cinema. The backbone of the plot is separation at birth, derived from Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. “It was so boring; he could have done wonders with it. And there are the movies. Seeta aur Geeta and… what was it called… the one where Jeetendra played both twins? Doubly horrible stuff,” says Chatterjee.
Fairy Tales at Fifty leads with the story of the pauper, Angulimala, a young runaway constantly in need of sexual conquest, which is incomplete if it does not end in murder. Separated at birth from this masculine action figure is an “impotent prince” who lives in a Mumbai high-rise, goes to school in the hills, and thinks too much to be able to act. Let us not venture into the luxuriant foliage of their family trees for fear of getting lost; the prince deduces, from the report of a blood test, that parents are not always who they claim to be, but he cannot confront them. And so, as they hit the speedbreaker of 50 (which is the new 40), his brother and he confront the essentially human question: Where did I come from?
Among English writers in India, Chatterjee has been a reliable custodian of a fundamental human quality: humour. “It’s what distinguishes us from beasts,” he says. His dog and cat probably do have a sense of humour, or they would not be able to tolerate each other or Chatterjee’s gloomy sense of fun, but attempts to canvass their opinions on the matter failed.
Chatterjee’s humour has mellowed with age. Like old honey, it now flows darker. In 1988, his first novel English, August had hazaar startled readers with a hero who kept the meaninglessness of life at bay with the use of humour seasoned with marijuana. Agastya Sen heroically reduced the problematics of life in the rusting steel frame of the administration in small town India to two simple questions: in such an alien, hostile setting, how is a man to get stoned and get laid? Even Sen’s way of preparing for his first meeting with the IAS man who would train him was to get stoned. “That was a young man’s book,” says Chatterjee, and suggests that readers should not seek its author in his current work, even though it pursues “the continuing theme of the madness of the world”.
Something has changed dramatically in the decades between English, August and Fairy Tales at Fifty. The enemy is no longer meaninglessness, which seems trivial in comparison to the new demon: “Evil is the most fundamental force. It drives the world.” The restlessly idle rich in the new book are spectacularly vile — vile on a scale which makes life itself meaningless. The family patriarch is a fiend in human shape who has reduced the rest of the clan to mere survivalists. His appetites for sex and money are rampant. From obscure origins in the trade in human bones and skeletons — for which his agents paid in advance to the poor, even before there was a death in the family — he has graduated to the organ trade, a “blood farm” for donors and the adoption racket. He is now ready for higher things — charity and political office, and a bite of a child’s liver on the side, just to remember what youth tasted like. The magnate’s life is built on the bodies of the poor, which, with ghoulish efficiency, he has commodified like chicken.
The shadow of contemporary reality falls sharply across this book: the Nithari killings, the kidney rackets, a real estate empire which began as a temple, the ease with which the building of a charitable trust turns into a trustee’s private residence in the upper storeys — these are contemporary realities. And the amoral Angulimala recalls Delhi’s rapists of two Decembers ago, who shook India with a single act of insane sexual cruelty.
Chatterjee’s book could easily top the 2014 list for sex and violence. “It’s a casually violent world,” he says. “You have people being beheaded on YouTube and life goes on. Reports, the UN, that’s all… People are horrible to each other and yet we don’t commit suicide, because death is worse.” Interestingly, Chatterjee leaves the thoughtful, impotent prince of his book alive, though he wipes out his siblings. Why? “Because someone has to live unhappily ever after.” And with that twisted thumbs-up, he raises the bar on casual, meaningless violence in fiction.
The story appeared in print with the headline Once upon a time