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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Sarkar is an Ass

A satire on India’s politics and society announces a brave new voice.

Written by Dilip Bobb |
September 14, 2013 1:22:38 am

Book: The Competent Authority

Author: Shovon Chowdhury

Publisher: Aleph

Price: Rs 495

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Pages: 452

There’s a line in George Orwell’s Animal Farm which sums up his savage satire on Stalin’s rule. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man,and from man to pig,and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” Later,speaking about his dystopian novel,he would describe his intention as being “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” The great satirists,Orwell,Jonathan Swift,Anthony Burgess,William Burroughs,Aldous Huxley,Mark Twain and Joseph Heller to name a few,did that with devastating literary effect. Political satire,to be truly effective,needs a target and proper timing; the trick is to stay as close to reality and yet,make the ludicrous sound believable. Indian authors who attempt allegorical satire in English are something of a rarity. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger,Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel and Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English,August head the list and now,we can add one more —Shovon Chowdhury’s The Competent Authority. Combining the real and the imagined,the past and the present,rulers and the ruled,this debut novel is a wicked satire on India in 2025. The Competent Authority refers to a bureaucrat who has,after most of India is obliterated by Chinese nukes,manipulated himself into a position of absolute power. Chowdhury’s novel switches from the present to the future,a time-travel paradox that allows the author to bring in historical signposts. There is a prime minister,a lady from a prominent political dynasty,and politicians and officials who are barely-disguised portraits of real-life figures. There is a frenetic pace to the novel and a revolving cast of characters who keep the action moving along.

Along with despots and nutcases,the main characters include Hemonto Chatterjee,a “telepath tester” for the CBI; Pintoo,who donated a hand to Pappu Verma,the spoilt son of Sameer Verma; Ali from the Al Qaeda; Pande,a deranged policeman,Dharti Pakar of the Art of Breathing,Banani Chatterjee,a school teacher on the run from the law; and Mehta,the Competent Authority’s aide. Pintoo is the nucleus around which the plot revolves.

New New Delhi is the setting,identified by two warring camps,the haves (rich,politically connected and corrupt) live in the Dead Circle. The less fortunate are confined to a ghetto run by a eunuch. Ever so often,the Bank of Bodies sends commandos to the ghetto to harvest body parts for someone from the Dead Circle. Pintoo is one “donor” victim and the recipient,Pappu Verma. The effect of the transplant endows both kids with supernatural powers. Pintoo is out to destroy everything to do with the Establishment,while Pappu commits acts of atrocity that he would never have dared to attempt.

It’s all very maniacal and frenzied,an Indianised Catch-22 with its own vocabulary and reference points,some pretty slanderous,and a megalomaniac who hatches insane schemes which will destroy what’s left of India while Pintoo and his allies try to prevent that from happening. The pace is relentless which is where the novel falters; often,the past and future get mixed up and the section where Hemonto is teleported to pre-Independence India to stop epochal events from taking place gets a bit infantile in parts. Tighter editing and less self-indulgence would have reduced it to a more suitable size and restricted the many sub-plots that go nowhere and characters who are forgotten by the end.

For all that,this is a hugely ambitious undertaking,which is more than competent as a work of satire,and written with authority and style. Chowdhury,an advertising man,has a way with words and a fertile imagination that works in selling a fantasy. The Competent Authority signals a brave new voice in India’s literary scene.

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