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Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Title: Villainy

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Death of late having been much on her mind, it did not seem surprising to Dr Mujumdar that she should, at seven-forty of a December morning, during her constitutional in the neighbourhood park, be the first to come upon the corpse or rather, to recognise it to be a dead body. Of course, they were all concentrating on striding along on the jogging track – rolling their hips, pausing discreetly on occasion, only for a micro-second, to break wind – and all moving clockwise as per the rules set down and put up by the Residents’ Welfare Association on the signboard at the entrance, and if they had eyes for anything, it was for the odd, protruding pebble in their paths and every now and then, a Johnny-come-lately in his new car outside the gates, prowling in search of a parking slot. But beneath the hibiscus bushes just before the Children’s Corner, they so stared her in the face, leapt out at her to shout out their presence that she marvelled that no one else appeared to have noticed them – a pair of off-white Bata tennis sneakers, stark against the dark, damp loam, blue socks in a heap at the ankles, khaki trousers that had ridden up to reveal scrawny calves, with the rest of the travesty mercifully hidden by the foliage and a mound of compost awaiting distribution. For travesty she knew it would be and she did not want to see it; for since when has death not been a travesty of all that holds meaning?

       ‘Something tells me that that is not a drunk Colony guard or municipal gardener sleeping it off,’ said she, aloud, to herself, glanced at her watch even though she knew what time it was, and continued silently, But could I still do my half-a-dozen rounds as though nothing has happened, or at least as many as I can before someone else notices something amiss? Or would that be callous and unfeeling of me? She lengthened her stride and began doggedly to pump her elbows in an effort to get away quickly. Her heart though was really not in it that morning. ‘It does seem shameful for someone who’s almost a medical doctor,’ she carried on her conversation with herself, ‘to run away from a corpse. Waddle away, more accurately. But people must never know. And all this – ’ She looked up and about her for a moment, blinked ‘ – is going to have to stop pretty soon, isn’t it?’ She exchanged a ‘Morning’ for a ‘Hello, dear’ as she overtook portly Mrs Gulati. ‘I mean, no one can possibly jog or skip rope or stretch or do his yoga and breathe through his anus or laugh his therapeutic Santa Claus belly laugh in the presence of a dead body, can he?’ And then, aloud, ‘Morning, Sanjeev-ji. You are early today?!’

      Dr Mujumdar took more than her usual eleven minutes to cross the Children’s Corner, pass the Water-Harvesting Area and loop around the Nano Golf Course. By the time she turned into the straight stretch along the C-Block side of the park, a knot of the regulars, forced to abandon their burpees and their Hanuman pushups, had formed around the hibiscus bushes. Automatically, Dr Mujumdar slowed down, even wondered for a second whether she could about-turn and, disobeying the commandment of the RWA, clump away anti-clockwise.

       ‘Don’t touch anything! Just call the police.’

      ‘Could it be someone we know? Even a member of the Health Club?’

      ‘Doesn’t look as though his membership did him any good. Somebody had better telephone the police, I say.’

      ‘I can’t. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘I can’t either, unfortunately. I always leave my phone behind at home when I step out for my exercise.’

      ‘Why don’t you call them? They will respond immediately to your commanding personality.’

      ‘It is the RWA that should phone the police. After all, the dead body has been found in a public place. Just call Tutreja at the Association.’

      ‘I can’t, I just told you. My phone needs to be charged.’

      ‘Why are you carrying around a phone that doesn’t work?’

      ‘To time my rounds, if you must know. The clock works. And how damn nosey you are, if I might add.’

      ‘Is something the matter? I’m a doctor. A pharmacist, more accurately. Perhaps I might be of help.’

      The knot of exercisers, three-deep by then, stirred and parted like porridge to make way for Dr Mujumdar and then congealed around her even before she could look down once more upon the Bata shoes and the scrawny calves, the khaki trousers. The press of bodies made concentration all the more difficult.

      ‘We’ll have to pull him out and turn him over. Any volunteers?’ The doctor looked about her at the knot, watched it stir and thin. ‘Backache,’ murmured a man with a white moustache, his hand ready to clutch his hip.

      With a grunt of annoyance, portly Mrs Gulati planted herself in the hibiscus bed, pushed aside the vegetation and bent to grab an ankle. The shadow of a momentary queasiness crossed her features at the touch of that cold, alien flesh. She was suddenly surrounded by several fellow-residents whom she had abashed. Freely directing and admonishing one another, they lifted the body up and sideways and laid it down, face up, on the jogging track. The group emitted a sort of collective moan, part sigh, part gasp, on first seeing the face. With difficulty, Dr Mujumdar got down on her knees beside the body. The onlookers, four deep now, gathered about them as though caught in an eddy.

      He was dead, there was no doubt about that. The dead do not look like the living. She felt for his pulse. The wrist was cold and stiff. She extracted a large handkerchief from the pocket of her tracksuit and gently dusted the loam and grit off the face. A murmur, a commentary on the vanity of all that is not death, rustled through the group like the hint of a breeze.

Excerpted from Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 Walkers in a Delhi neighbourhood park come upon a body on a mid-winter morning—an unidentified body, unremarkable but for an extraordinary scar right between the eyes.

A delinquent teenager—who prefers, to the rest of living, an Ecstasy pill with a beer, and the interior of an expensive car with a gun in his pocket—leaves home one evening for a joyride in his father’s Mercedes.

In the nineteen years separating these episodes, five killings take place—and one near-fatal battery—none of which would have happened if a school bus hadn’t been in the wrong lane. Deals are struck between masters and servants, money changes hands, assurances are given and broken. The wheels of justice turn, forward, backwards and sideways, pause and turn again. Old alliances are tested and new ones are formed in prison cells, mortuaries and court rooms. And every life is a gamble, for no one is entirely innocent.

A meticulously crafted literary thriller, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh novel is a riveting story of crime and retribution, and a meditation on the randomness of evil, death and redemption. It will keep you spellbound till the end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Upamanyu Chatterjee is the celebrated author of English, August: An Indian Story (1988), The Last Burden (1993), The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Weight Loss (2006), Way to Go (2011), and Fairy Tales at Fifty (2014)—all novels; The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian (2018), a novella; and The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019), a collection of long stories. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2000, and in 2008, he was awarded the Order of Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government for his contribution to literature.

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Review

  Is Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee a ‘Commercial Thriller’?

Book review by Indrasish Banerjee

Title: Villainy

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.

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL