18 November 2010

The Goat, the Sofa and Mr. Swami by R. Chandrasekar

Parliamentary Language
I read a review that called this book “a delightful page-turner” and had to rap myself on the knuckles for being the kind of person who takes offence too easily.

The thing is, GSMS is far more than that. It is very well written, the theme is one yet untapped in the Indian context, and the plot is inventive and engaging.
Joint Secretary Swami is the Prime Minister of India’s personal secretary (IAS Bihar cadre) and this is the story of the kind of life he leads, his daily routines and preoccupations, and how he stays afloat in the savage seas of political office.
The fictional Indian Prime Minister Motwani is eighty-two years old and has a weak heart and tender libido. His conversations with the Prime Minister of Pakistan are tricky mine dances that made me laugh. You will also read here what happens when the President of the USA telephones the Indian Prime Minister (at 2 am, of course – wonder why he can’t check with the CIA what the time is likely to be in India before he calls). And naturally the leader of the opposition is a great authority on the subject of that ambrosial delicacy, cow’s urine. Ministers and bureaucrats who fall out of favour are rudely transferred to Jhumritalaya (or Mogadishu) – except, of course, when the service rules make it impossible for that to happen.
And when Swami, in a desperate you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours manoeuvre sends his former schoolmate Jugal Kishore Hansraj off to a posting in Geneva, he has recurring nightmares that feature JKH (late of Bulandshahr) urinating against the sides of the Palais des Nations, depositing his chewed pan along the shores of Lake Geneva and travelling ticketless in the trams in Europe’s most cosmopolitan city.
Of course the whole farce has to end in a cricket match where everything hangs on one ball, and all this is woven into an ingenious plot that had me shaking my head in admiration.

When I tracked R. Chandrasekar down to ask him how he knew all this about the way governments work – perhaps he himself was once a member of the IAS or even (god forbid!) the IFS? he laughed before saying he lived in far away Madras and all he knew about any of these things was what he read in the daily papers. What he read in the daily papers, he went on, was in fact so hilarious and unlikely that quite a lot of it had worked its way into the book. “You know, they mention things like empowered group of ministers and standing committees of parliament, and they have all these well-structured devices in case you want to put things off and avoid making decisions. And as for the IAS/IFS divide – well one hears of all these antics in which people are constantly jockeying for positions, of ensuring that positions are reserved for people from a particular service, and the fact is that one of those has been particularly more successful than the other in looking after itself.”

So – not based on first-person research as I had suspected, but just a outsider’s take on the matter which turned out to be hilarious and, in fact, spot on: when he circulated an early draft of the manuscript to some friends, one of them passed it on to an IAS officer who came back with the comment that this was pretty much how things happened in her office. “I was appalled to hear that!” Chandrasekar told me. “I thought I was being funny! I guess I was closer to reality than I had imagined.”

When I asked him how much of Swami was in him he laughed again and said if he was anything like poor Swami his wife would have left him long ago.
Well – I have to admit I quite liked Swami. He was really smart, the way he was continuously able to bail himself out of impossible situations, sneaky and resourceful – and with one-liners of his own that made me laugh too.

The best news Chandrasekar gave me was that he has two more books on the way – both nearly done and currently getting their last rubs of polish. One is a murder mystery set in a boarding school in India and the other a lighthearted novel based in a Management institute in Tamil Nadu.

There’s only one thing that would please me more in this context: to hear that this slick and refreshing book is being converted into a TV serial for thousands more to enjoy and shake their head at the way this wonderful country of ours is run.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, it was a terrific read. As one who knows the author very well, I can say with absolute certainty that he is nothing like Swami!