06 April 2010

Delhi Durbar by Krishan Partap Singh

It's not all throwing chairs about in Parliament, you know
This is the first of a trilogy. It's a crisp, no-nonsense and intelligently-plotted story with the Indian government as a setting. I enjoyed it. here's what I wrote for last Sunday's issue of the Sunday Mid-day:
This book is a political thriller and is based in New Delhi. In common with the author, the hero is a Jat Sikh, and also a banker who gave up banking to do something else.

His father had been a power broker and he, like so many others in the Indian government, clambered easily into a hereditary seat that had been lavishly feathered for his comfort. But now his father has died (in a mysterious helicopter crash) and the Prime Minister has special plans for him, an unofficial but critical portfolio, quite different from his father’s old job because “the second generation needn’t dirty their hands, you must concentrate on larger matters that require vision and energy”.
But, and unlike pretty much everyone he deals with while he’s there – our hero is not one of your slimy politicians, just a regular guy you can relate to because he speaks well, considers himself different from them, isn’t as completely unscrupulous as they are, and would rather not describe his sex life to you because it’s private.
Now we all know we live in a country where government officials and bureaucrats are so busy filling their pockets with ill-gotten gains that they really have no time to do their jobs. We all know that they steal from public funds and horde more money than they could ever, ever actually use. And we all know that every aspect of India, if we’re honest with ourselves, is administrated by what can only be described as an extortion racket. So, when we read a story in this familiar setting with a certain amount of accurate circumstantial detail (such as cocky reporters twisting words to unsettle their subjects and gain themselves sensational stories), all the caricatures start looking like real people and even the far-fetched scenes, such as the one of torture, start looking believable.
In that sense I was reminded of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Though presented by very different narrators, both books show, in an entertaining way, what a farce Indian democracy is when inspected at certain angles and from certain quarters. They also show how close we are to the brink and how careless we’re being about taking our freedom and privilege for granted.
Now before I get carried away and start awarding the Booker Prize here, let me not forget how many times this book’s turn of phrase annoyed me. His passport was going to be his “umbilical” partner “till death do us part” – two mixed metaphors in one sentence, and that too on page one! And do people ever really speak like this, “You’re being overly suspicious, Papa” or “this kind of frontal assault does not fit his personality”?
However, there is excitement in this story, and romance and suspense and also a completely unselfconscious and uniform usage of language – if you’ll pardon the fair number of clichés – and in that sense it’s a book with an unperturbed international quality to it. And yet, when I ask myself how eagerly I’m waiting for the next two in this trilogy, there’s no great enthusiasm in my response. Worst of all, I can’t for the life of me remember the hero’s name. I know I came across it once or twice when I read the book a few weeks ago. And I’ve now spent several minutes flipping through it back and forth but – alas, will have to live with never knowing.

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