Provoking the Mind

Covering a host of diverse topics from a political assassination to caste issues, here is a collection with the perfect sweet-and-sour aftertaste
Upamanyu Chatterjee
Upamanyu Chatterjee

Why do we read? Is it for enlightenment, is it for information or is it for entertainment? The answers could be as varied as there are readers. These answers are just peripheral. The reason why we read is to find a way to negotiate through our life. Nothing is truer to life than fiction. And among all forms of fiction, short stories are the clearest of mirrors that reflect and amplify life. Life, that throbs around us, life that we miss while we struggle to live, life that is so confusing and exhilarating, comes alive with a surprising clarity through the words of a master storyteller. 

In this collection of short stories written over three-and-a-half decades, Upamanyu Chatterjee brings a distinctive and powerful narrative voice that had marked his debut novel English, August. The humour is subtle, dark and hard-hitting. The title—The Assassination of Indira Gandhi—is provocative and eye-catching. It is the title of the last short story in the book, which deals with the vacuous life of a Sikh youth in the remote hill station of Mussoorie when the country is jolted by the assassination of the Prime Minister. The otherwise direction-less protagonist turns indifferently to superficial conservatism of his religion on behest of his confused father giving it a delightful twist. 

‘Can’t Take This Shit Anymore’ is the most powerful story in this collection. The story seems like it starts from where Mulk Raj Anand left off in his novel Untouchable. But what makes Chatterjee’s rendering more powerful is the sardonic wit and its gallows humour. The suppressed anger and sarcasm bubbles up through every word. “If shit lifting is so noble, why don’t you all do it! Why is it only us, and always us! Why do you sprinkle water on everything we touch! He lies, the father of your nation! Ask him to carry a basket of shit on his head first and then talk!” 

Mulk Raj Anand’s book ends with the hope of its hero awaiting the arrival of flush toilets in India. Chatterjee reminds us that even after 83 years of Mulk Raj Anand’s hope, good days are yet to arrive for most of the Indians. Chatterjee ends this powerful short story with a sweet irony about the undying hope of the poor in this chaotic, cruel and indifferent country of lofty ideals and inhuman practices.   

The irreverent Agastya Sen of English, August makes a reappearance in ‘The Killings in Madna’. Seen through the eyes of a bored IAS officer, the story unfolds the mind-numbing cruelty of India’s creaky administrative system. While ‘Othello Sucks’ is a funny take on racism, irrelevance of Shakespeare through the eyes of modern Indian upper class teenagers and their clueless parents, ‘Bombay, 1984’ is a timeless classic on the shallowness of relationships and life itself. 

‘Sparrows’ is more like non-fiction and a bit preachy, peppered with admonitions for the heedless who choose to ignore nature’s warnings. Some stories, though peppered with high brow humour which sometimes appear forced, meanders without any plot or characterisation like the ‘History Lesson’. The author captures irony well, making you smile while you read them, but other than that, they leave nothing in your mind as an aftertaste.    

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi has some great short stories, some good ones and a few that would leave you scratching your head about your own comprehension skills. If dark humour and delicious prose is what you are looking for, this is the book for you.

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi
By: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 352
Price: `699

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The New Indian Express