I don’t read a book but read its author. I don’t read a story for the sake of the story but look at the way the story has been penned by the author. Probably the writer in me stops the reader in me from reading the story as is. Therefore, I have to read a page or a paragraph twice – one for the reader and one of the writer in me.
Here is a novel that I read thrice – twice in English and once in Tamil. Being a predominantly Indian novel with Indian characters and incidents, and written by an Indian writer, the novel presents itself as an epitome of Indian-ness. I would further say that the novel presents the view of the Indian middle class of incidents that have national importance. The middle class has its opinions but is utterly powerless to act on those and merely stands a mute witness to the happenings that affect the nation. The most that it is able to do is to write a letter to the newspaper expressing all its thoughts and emotions. Needless to say, the letter finds its way to the dustbins of the newspaper, for the newspaper itself is an institution of the upper class and the middle folks don’t have any say but to just buy, read and recycle the same to the wastepaper-walla
The nation is usually shocked at some tragic happenings – like Rajiv Gandhi’s gruesome assassination, the now-routine bomb blasts and the killings by terrorists and left-wing rebels. But the shock gets dissipated in a series of other shocks that are either deliberate or otherwise. The original shock resurfaces, in another form, and in another place, and the same middle class is re-surprised and re-shocked and the process continues.
One such is the abduction of a government engineer in Assam, that this novel talks about. Abductions for ransom have been the hallmark of several militant groups in India. However incongruous such acts might look given the philosophical and ideological high ground such organizations take, the militants have always been made to look like warriors for justice by the left-liberal dominated media. And the governments of the day, from the center right to the extreme right, have always displayed pusillanimity when they have had to deal with such exigencies. And such characteristics have always proved beneficial to the militants and detrimental to the nation. The Rubia Sayeed episode in Kashmir, the Kandahar hijacking of an Air India flight and many more like these, have often proved beyond any iota of doubt, that the Indian state, when it needs to deal with such ransom situations, is left rudderless. The forest brigand Veerappan, a ruffian smuggler of sandalwood and elephant tusks from Tamil Nadu, had a long run and even became a folklore for the villagers.
Times change, but governments don’t. Governments change, but governance doesn’t. Policies change but the general situation continues to be bleak. This novel explains this, with interesting twists and turns, all the while remaining steadfast to the true incidents that it is based on.
Despite the seriousness of the plot and the rather serious implications that the situations embody to the protagonists, the author has added his characteristic humor, in liberal doses, across the novel. Humor is subtle yet striking and therefore helps bring down the seriousness that creeps into the minds of the reader. That was what I felt, when I read the novel and its Tamil translation.
The novel has an unique architecture in that it is not straightforward. It is a combination of a review of the novel by its characters, and the actual novel itself. The protagonist himself is an author of a novel based on his experiences in a Public Sector Power company and the other characters jump out of the novel and review the content. Though this approach hinders the flow of the story, it was new, and I enjoyed it immensely.
A PSU Engineer is abducted by Assamese militants and the Vigilance Officer attempts to bring him back. The powers that hinder this effort, the politics that the central and state governments play in this affair, the personal tragedies of the officer are all built cogently into the narrative. What happens during the actual abduction and what happens behind the scene ( that we come to know towards the end ) are very different presentation layers that the gullible public is given to consume.
I, having been a witness to the hierarchical world of bureaucrats in a PSU ( Neyveli, where my father worked), was able to enjoy the wisecracks relating to the choice of snacks served during the meetings of bureaucrats and the pecking order when it came to the nuts that were served. Here is an instance in the novel. A female under secretary tries to win over the protagonist ( kind of woo, to be precise) while they are seated in a meeting. This she does by passing a bowl of cashew nuts to him. During the break, she comes to know that the guy is from a PSU organization and hence doesn’t pass the cashew nuts after the break, thus signifying the hierarchy in the Indian official set-up. The author brings out the subtle point that the Ministry officials of the same rank are placed higher in the pecking than the PSU officials.
However, I felt that the narrative had some unnecessary characters as well. Partha Chatterjee was one such. If the character could have been avoided, then an elderly love making scene could have been avoided. Not that it hurt my middle class sensibilities but that the characters seemed so out of place.
There is a frequent fallback on Marxism and Gandhian thoughts where the author’s personal beliefs in these two schools of thought are visible.
On the whole, ‘The Muddy River’ is a sensible and believable story based on true incidents, humorous at places where you wouldn’t expect, and written in a fluid style sprinkled with some very rarely used words in officialdom.
Lovers of the English language should not miss this novel.