Book review by Indrasish Banerjee
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Delhi has many sides to it. It’s the city of Islamic dynasties, transformative history, cultural finesse, power politics. However, some of the celebrated books in last the decade or so on Delhi — The White Tiger (Arvind Agida), The Capital (Rana Dasgupta) — have mostly highlighted its cynical side: the shallowness of its rich, the constant oppression of the poor, the misuse of wealth and power, the ubiquity of corruption, moral decadence and a casual acceptance of everything wrong. I spent a few formative years in Delhi in the 80s. Even back then the common view about Delhi was it wasn’t a place for the straightforward. But people also felt the city had some redeeming qualities.
In last two and half decades or so, the Manu Sharma case(1999) where the murderer shot a bartender for refusing to serve him; the sordid tandoor murder (1995) where a suspicious husband killed his wife and several other outrageous occurrences which wreaked havoc in the city exposing its underbelly and shaped its reputation as a place where nothing is right. This is the timeframe of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s latest book Villainy.
Upamanyu Chatterjee shot to fame with English August in 1988. The Last Burden (1993), Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000) and many more critically acclaimed novels followed. He also wrote a novella, The Revenge of Non-vegetarians (2018) and a collection of long stories, and The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019). He won the Sahitya Academy Award for the Mammaries of the Welfare State in 2000 and, in 2008, was awarded the Order of Officer des Arts et des Letters by the French Government for his contribution to literature.
Villainy is structural delight. It starts in 2016 and then takes the reader to the late 90s, into a completely different narrative setting without any obvious linkage to the former strand. In 2016 a dead body of an anonymous person is discovered in a park one early morning when the residents of the area are starting their day. It remains anonymous even after the police leaves no stone unturned for establishing its identity. The other strain is set in 1997, a boy, a spoilt brat, high on Ecstasy pill, out with his father’s Mercedes Benz, murdered two people and a dog.
Loosely based on the high profile Manu Sharma murder case where a rich man’s son killed a woman and justice was meted out only seven years later, the novel would have been every bit a commercial thriller but for the literary style of Upamanyu Chatterjee. If you subtract the style, however, Villainy reads like a novel waiting to be adopted for a pacy web series. The narrative is speedy; the chapters are long, without becoming tiresome, and episodic; the scenes have a visual quality, and they transition swiftly.
There is another thing that reminds you that Villainy is a work of a literary writer: ideological hangover. When a literary writer writes a thriller, characters’ actions mostly conform to their ideological stereotypes. Nemichand, a rich jeweller, is (or has to be) an amoral man. His attitude towards social or economic inferiors is always driven by a bristling class consciousness. He is boorish and uses expletives whenever aroused but when his benefactors do the same, he feels they are acting above station. Atmaram, Nemichand’s driver, on the other hand, is no paragon of virtues – he has accepted money to have his son, Parmatma, falsely admit to committing the murders – but Atmaram is largely a victim of circumstances, which, being the making of the rich, morally exempt the poor man.
But whatever may be its biases, Villainy works at different levels. As a thriller it doesn’t give you too many boring moments. As a literary fiction it gives some moments to reflect on – you should read Chatterjee’s take on villainy in general. Chatterjee has been able to create a sense of time for both the periods (2016 and the late 90s) the plot operates in. His efforts are sometimes cliched like invoking the most talked about events of those times but sometimes they are subtler and less obvious giving you a feeling of reliving those days.
With declining sales of literary fiction and burgeoning popularity of web series, former literary fiction writers are taking to thrillers discarding their subtler muses. Villainy is quite a journey from English August. But that the likes of Chatterjee are taking to popular genres is actually good news. Villainy projects a picture of a society with all its flaws and failings — responsibly and deftly.
Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India.
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