The French philosopher Lefebvre believed that we had advanced past the era of imperialism and into the era of the metropolis. Like most French intellectuals he was completely wrong.
There is nothing new about the metropolis. These days it is usually Gotham or New York. It was probably New York a hundred years ago too. Two hundred years ago you had Jack the Ripper or Sherlock running in the filth of London. As much as pulp fiction and detective novels enjoy professing a unwavering love towards their often crime ridden, stinky muses, they are pretty common.
In fact empires always seem to create these unsavory, unpleasant masses of humanity that crime fighters love. Two thousand years ago it was Rome; and for all the awesome artifacts and chaste marble that remains it sucked for most people in it. Time and again masses of peasants are squeezed off their land and come to these cities as lumpen proles, without land, income, craft, trade and soon enough without any tradition at all. A least they had the games and races in the Roman age.
It is here that Vikram Chandra’s novel excels, when it shows us the cruel, chaotic, tragic lives of the poorest and most common inhabitants of these cities. We see characters of all classes and cultures, brought together by the coercive forces of history, or more accurately, capitalist development. They are pushed and pulled by forces beyond their control as the Indian republic flexes unthinkingly from the partition, from its ambition, its tragedies, hate and bureaucratic lethargy.
There is a great tradition of Indian English literature producing dull, unimaginative retellings of family friendly mythology without a subversive word in their glossary. It’s incredible how popular authors manage to mention sex and caste less than 3000 year old texts. This novel admirably is not of that tradition, with more swears than punctuation. Most admirable of all is the fact that it flirts with villainous protagonists, unapologetic cruelty and it has meaningful observations of caste, religion and sex.
The one fatal flaw is that it could have used a really merciless editor towards the end of the novel. In the novel American Psycho (and in the movie too) Patrick Bateman goes on for page after tedious page, monologuing about his endless list of overpriced luxury items. The idea is to make it unbearable for the reader. You are forced to hear so much about his garbage because you are to have no room for doubt when you realise that this rich, well groomed man is a complete loser. A empty, husk of a man who hates humanity, who feels nothing- the embodiment of the ruling class under the President Reagan.
Unfortunately I faced the same effect when it turns into some 200 hundred pages of a criminal mastermind tediously explaining every insight on his path to spiritual enlightenment. It is well intentioned, it is not disagreeable. Yet it is not the same as interesting, especially after a smooth and fast paced first half that doesn’t relent. Why not cut through these long winded introspections and show us the journey through a few more characters? The novel manages to introduce curious characters right till the end. It also manages to subtly point out the truth behind the machismo and spiritual mastery of the characters is been building up for chapter after chapter even when things really heat up. It’s unfortunate that the author didn’t lean on this skill of his more consistently.
On a technical level too, these introspections don’t hold up because they seem quite out of place. As though the spiritual malaise and anxiety talked about are clearly from a middle class mind – something like the mind of an author, let’s say– and not really from the mind of an inspector or criminal. Not that I have much insight but having read Agni Shreedhar autobiography, there are clear indications that his priorities, self image and desires aren’t quite… usual, even if he’s constantly being silent on certain topics.
By the end I was more interested in hearing from the immigrants, the failed revolutionaries and maybe even the stand in for Dawood Ibrahim and his love for the godfather movies than yet another long spiritual quest. It isn’t in the pedigree of detective novels to just follow random characters but I think the book would have been better for it.
The adaptation is also an interesting thing to examine. Obviously it too struggles with the ending. I would argue that like the book it should have done away with the long spiritual journey and kept the ending close by. The more important take away is how they had to change the ending with the times. In the novel, the world just goes on in the end. Not much changes in the world, Inspector Sartaj has his world change but the system goes on and no one is any wiser. This makes sense, because regardless of nuclear scares, the book was written during the “end of history” , when people thought that the liberal order had won. A few years later, the adaption features the same story with the same conspiracy, the same villains, the same religious fanatics and the same plot, yet today the story must end with a possible apocalypse. It just wouldn’t feel realistic if it didn’t end that way.