From Shovon Chowdhury’s rather startlingly comic debut novel to his second, the scope (no further time-travel this time!) and the geography have shrunk. So have the pages. The Bengal canvas is naturally half of his earlier future India, under the crazy ‘Competent Authority’. The time zone is the same, though: 2033.
If it is Bengal, there has to be something fishy about it—cover to cover. It’s not exactly smoky-hazy-nocturnal, and it still is LOL territory, but in some ways, it’s a fit text for Anurag Kashyap.
But for someone looking for a futuristic take on Bengal another 15-20 years hence, it could get disappointing. It contains no rollercoaster ride. The daily happenings in 2030s are those culled from the news reports of 2013; Chowdhury is an avid headline-chaser, the reader thus is very much anchored in the present. Not transported to a time zone years away, the temporal dislocation serves no other purpose other than a convenient ruse to talk about an extended ‘now’. Old men in Baghbazaar are still reading The Statesman.
Bengal, and the Northeast, however, have been transported by Chowdhury into the clutches of the Chinese—a worrying thought—via Bijli Bose (an all-too-obvious fictional clone of Jyoti Basu). The one who had to be “surgically removed from his chair”. Chowdhury’s allergic reaction to the long-stretched, ‘claustrophobic’ Left rule in Bengal (from which the author fled to Delhi) is unmasked.
The Chinese underlings and agents of the Bengal Protectorate—who now run the state, virtually from the Calcutta police headquarters at Lal Bazaar—describe Bijli Bose as “former politburo member... He ran Bengal for years, before the war, before they invited us in. He’s been a loyal supporter of the Motherland. It’s just that for a long time no one knew which Motherland.” There’s no specific central character holding the narrative except Inspector Li, who is no ordinary agent. But he’s a rather tenuous pivotal point for the sequence of events, which sees multiple characters flit in and out, offering varying doses of irony, satire andp pure slapstick.
In Chowdhury’s narrative, Bijli Bose is juxtaposed to the “supremely chilled Maoists” who’ve been ruling Junglemahal—“the liberated zone closest to the Protectorate” where the “boys are focusing more on theatre and floriculture” and are simply “not as interested in revolution as they were”. Chowdhury’s satirical Maoists are on a pop-nostalgia trip, they flip through copies of Stardust.
If there’s Bijli Bose in Calcutta and Maoist boys in the jungle, can Didi, oops Pishi, be far behind? The landscape cannot be complete without her. She, the “wild-haired elderly woman with accusing eyes”, who “time to time also comes to power...not easy to suppress...kept in mental asylum...Chinese may be strict, but Pishi is Pishi,” explains Geju-da, he of the opulent living standards.
He, like Debu-da, the Maoist ideologue from whom Li borrows his Stardust, provides the essential Bengali characteristics. Delightfully, Sourav Ganguly and Mithun Chakarvorty have also survived the Chinese purge.
The rest are a bunch of sleazy Chinese cutouts, rather reminiscent of characters from Tintin’s Blue Lotus (quite a Bengali characteristic that). So we have Governor Wen of the Bengal Protectorate, General Zhou, Propagandist Wang (who deletes knowledge), Gao Yu, Sexy Chen, Ben Chen et el. Beyond Tintin, there is a distinct memory of the colour imparted on the Bengal landscape through British colonial field goggles, unspokenly present in the stereotyping sweep that sets up both the local and the Chinese cast.
Oh sorry. It is a murder mystery by conferred definition, though a political satire by default. The plot: A school teacher, a good sod, has been bumped off in the Maoist Liberated Zone. As Inspector Li wades through his own Protectorate’s hierarchy and a calendar full of Bengal stereotypes, he makes his discoveries. On the margins, a couple of businessmen, Sanjeev Verma and partner Agarwal, also typical of the landscape, worry about what would happen to their Chhattisgarh mining contract in the event of an Indo-China nuclear war.
Only a few now read regional Indian texts, especially of 19th century vintage. The now Delhi-based Chowdhury himself may or may not be aware, but his writing is a distant progeny of a long-gone tradition of intelligent humour and scathing satirical writing in Bengal. A past which he’s so desperately trying to escape. His style and substance reminds one more of Kali Prasanna Singha’s Hutum Panchar Naksha, the first modern Bengali satire, than of the overbearingly dark Saki.
The murder is not really a thing of the future, 2033 AD bears no intimation of sci-fi. The present comes out of Chowdhury’s words— like the fish coming out of the ears of the Bengali (Bijli Bose?)—marinating in the fears and allergies of the distant and the near past. Chowdhury is no Agatha Christie. Despite the crisp language, with laughs around every corner, the narrative is a bit of a jumblemahal, with the chapters barely strung together. But his is a refreshing voice, and the book a new step in Indian English crime writing.