You could call this a delightful long short story or a fast-paced novella. It begins as a whodunit and then plunges deep into space where gastronomical preferences have become a matter of life and death. Upamanyu Chatterjee sets his tale in an autumnal night in September 1949. A house goes up in flames in Batia town, burning, to cinders, six of a family and their dog.
Sifting the ashes reveals the charred remains of Nadeem Dalvi, the subordinate of Madhusudan Sen, ICS, the Magistrate of Batia (who is resurrected 30 years after the publication of English, August). Nadeem had thus far been his trustworthy supplier of fish, fowl and flesh. On finding that the deaths of Nadeem and his family are not accidental, Sen vows to turn vegetarian until justice is done.
Welcome to small-town India, where a young trainee officer (Sen) is on a provincial posting. Boredom reigns supreme as he walks back from the court to the bungalow each day and this Devil can only be kept at bay with a glass of Cutty Sark and a Gold Flake in the comfort that his official residence offers. Trouble is with the Magistrate’s bungalow. It was built 100 years ago on Temple Road, near a local shrine and the cook reminds Sen: “Meat, fish, eggs, liver, not allowed…. Not even onions and garlic. Out of respect, sir.”
Over the past few years, we have seen how politics has been stirring the pot with who eats what. There seems to be no touchstone on which one can balance the needs of non-vegetarians. Oftener than not, precious lives have been lost; debates have raged in the media and the timing was perfect for a gifted writer to fill the gap, and Upamanyu Chatterjee does it with finesse.
The politics of dietary choice is the gossamer thread that it holds together the many diverse strands of the plot. Take for instance the petty theft of beef stew; then the jailing of the criminal, who is put away with two rapist murderers and the kidnapper and killer of a child. What’s common? They happen to be strict vegetarians. But the author lets a haze descends on moral significance of this juxtaposing. Strangely enough, The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian is not about the fatigue born of beef politics. No preaching, no judging as with stunning force the novella leaves an imprint. Writing rarely gets better than this.