A Meaty Issue

Upamanyu Chatterjee returns with a murder mystery that is both an exploration of food politics and a backstory to his first novel

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: June 16, 2018 1:04:11 am
Geography lies at the root of Sen’s problem.

Book: The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publication: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 128
Price:  350

For years, national politics has been hostage to the moral question of meat in general and beef in particular. Lives have been lost, debate has raged in the media, the stage was set for an intrepid writer to leap into the breach, and Upamanyu Chatterjee gratifies with this fast-paced murder mystery. An implacably non-vegetarian civil servant is committed to the judicial destruction of a fellow non-vegetarian, a domestic help, for the crime of violently arrogating a whole beef stew to himself. The story is set in the period following Independence, long before Indian atavists identified animal protein as valuable political coin.

The novel marks Chatterjee’s return to the plain, old-fashioned storytelling which made English, August a bestseller. In a way, it is a back story to his first novel, since the civil servant is Madhusudan Sen, ICS. He had appeared in English, August, as a governor and anti-hero Agastya Sen’s eternally disappointed father. This story catches Madhusudan earlier in his career as sub-divisional magistrate of Batia, who has suffered a nutritional setback after his mamlatdar and his family are wiped out in a fire.

Geography lies at the root of Sen’s problem. The SDM’s bungalow had been incautiously constructed in the 19th century on Temple Road, within the sphere of influence of the small town’s ruling deity, Dayasagar Adinath. “Meat, fish, eggs, liver, not allowed,” Sen’s khansama lays down the line. “Not even onions and garlic. Out of respect, sir.”

But Sen is from Calcutta, and determined to maintain the carnivorous traditions of the second city of the British Empire. He sets up a supply chain for forbidden food, whose linchpin is the mamlatdar, but it is cruelly sundered by murder and fire. Sen conceives a powerful determination to see justice done, and the firebug eliminated. Chatterjee is mindful of EM Forster’s famous injunction, that a novel must tell a story. The politics of dietary choice is not the story. It is the thread which holds it together, from the original sin — a petty theft of some beef stew — to the incarceration of the criminal, who is housed with two rapist murderers and the kidnapper and killer of a child, all strict vegetarians. But the moral significance of this juxtapositioning is deliberately left hazy.

Chatterjee is a committed non-vegetarian himself, and regards a meal restricted to plant products with palpable alarm. In contrast, this novel includes a horrific scene in an illegal abattoir. The question of food politics and morality is not framed as a tournament between good and evil. There can be no winners or losers, or moral lessons, in a story where everyone plays a part written by circumstance, and even the original sin is morally defensible.

Chatterjee revisits the setting of English, August — the steel frame of the administration in small-town India, which he knows intimately. Here is a policeman extracting a confession: “We will now take off the plaster and I will play knock-knock with my stick on your hairline fracture. Would you like that?” This is a bowdlerised version to spare delicate sensibilities, of course. In reality, the cop would have played knock-knock first and discussed terms afterwards.

The success of English, August owed something to the IAS, whose community talked it up — defensively, since none could admit to smoking pot like Agastya. The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian, a much slimmer volume, may benefit from the current milieu, where the consumption of meat has been politically demonised by vigilantism supported by the ruling party. In a predominantly non-vegetarian country tired of worthless beef politics, this literary intervention which does not seek to preach, but only to tell a story, is most refreshing.

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