The Peacock Throne, by Sukit Saraf

Cry for my corrupt, chaotic country
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The Independent Culture

Once dismissed as a basket case of legendary proportions, today's India is courted by the likes of Bill Gates and Gordon Brown and lauded by the media as a virtual superpower. It's great that the West is finally trying to overcome its near-pornographic fixation on India's poverty and destitution, but the shiny new India that we are being urged to drool over is almost as fictitious, alas, as the dying lepers that journalists and missionary-types used to find so regularly on the pavements of Indian cities.

Sujit Saraf's novel The Peacock Throne, for all its farcical plot and sardonic tone, gives a more truthful picture of twenty-first-century India than anything in the earnest pages of the Wall Street Journal. The long, gripping story follows the tribulations of Gopal Pandey, the owner of a makeshift tea stall on a lane off Chandni Chowk, a famous thoroughfare of Old Delhi that bears no similarity with the spacious, tree-lined avenues of British-built New Delhi. Although a simple and unambitious man, Pandey, through a series of unexpected events, finds an enormous sum of money and comes close to wielding the kind of political power that the common man cannot even dream of acquiring in the world's largest democracy.

Pandey's odyssey commences in 1984 on the day of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination and culminates with the formation of India's first Hindu nationalist government in the mid-1990s. It was a time of virtual civil war between Hindus and Muslims, and Saraf captures the nastiness of the period with a colourful cast of traders, crooks, thugs, prostitutes, policemen and politicians. Pandey's son is hoaxed by a political operator into burning himself to death and a pickpocket whom Pandey subsequently comes to love as a son is blown up by a bomb. The novel recreates the chaos, violence and stench of Indian urban life with enormous skill and fidelity. The plot is often a bit contrived but that hardly matters. The narrative moves briskly and the plot, we quickly realise, is a mere device to display the characters and events in all their unlovely glory.

Most readers will be drawn to Pandey, but the other characters are even more captivating. The corrupt policeman Inderlal Jha (whose whole life is governed by the pursuit of bribes), the Sikh shopkeeper and politician Kartar Singh (whose unprofitable shop is merely a front for an illegal cricket-betting operation) or the crafty Muslim demagogue Suleiman Mian, are truly memorable creations. Saraf's detached, mordant tone highlights the horrors far more effectively than any self-righteous rant ever could. In its witty depiction of a moral vacuum, the novel bears comparison with Satyajit Ray's The Middleman, arguably the greatest film ever made about political and business corruption in India.

Rather like that film, however, The Peacock Throne could be criticised for its unrelenting pessimism. There are hardly any characters here one could love or even respect. Even Gopal Pandey is not above greed and the feminist reformer Chitra Ghosh jettisons many of her values in the pursuit of journalistic eminence. The others, of course, are thoroughly corrupt and although often histrionically religious, utterly devoid of any moral fibre. Everybody in the new India, it seems, is for sale and no principle is immune to bribery or political pressure.

Nobody in his right mind would deny the truth of some, perhaps even much of this, but the most bizarre thing about India and Indians, surely, is the ease with which they can combine the most arrant corruption, stupidity and inhumanity with genuine warmth and selflessness. You wouldn't suspect that from this novel. Although a masterly work in its own way and a terrific read, The Peacock Throne, ultimately, is a little too one-dimensional to be a real masterpiece.

Chandak Sengoopta is reader in history at Birkbeck College, London and the author of 'Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting was Born in Colonial India' (Pan)