How does a novelist do justice to a country as wild, various and contradictory as India? Most of the writers who have found fame in the West keep to the comfort zone of the English-speaking caste into which they were born, throwing in colour and comedy from the great unwashed to give an impression of authenticity. But for Tarun J Tejpal – founder and editor of Tehelka, the nation's most unflinching news weekly, whose mission is to dig deep into the morass of corruption in Indian public life – that was never going to be an option.
Instead, he takes us into the unexplored depths of Indian life, to which foreigners, and what is unselfconsciously known as the "creamy layer" of Indian society, never penetrate: to the filthy back alleys of the great railway stations where gangs of urchins survive by plundering passengers and sniffing glue; to the deceptively beautiful farmlands of the Gangetic plain, where farmers live in dread of members of more powerful castes; to lives of brutality on the communal divide between Hindu and Muslim.
The narrator, one of the editors of a news magazine sinking rapidly into debt, learns that a plot to assassinate him has narrowly been foiled. He is provided with a lumbering police escort, and makes an appearance at the shambolic Patiala court house in Delhi where the five men accused of the plot against him – four of them deeply unimpressive, the fifth immensely intimidating – are arraigned. Then, while the editor's hysterically right-on mistress sets about trying to prove that they are innocent victims, Tejpal takes us into the different worlds, all brilliantly evoked, that these men inhabit.
He spares us nothing in his depiction of the lust, cruelty and despair which are to be found towards the bottom of the heap in India: the rapes, burnings, revenge killings and the sheer hideous machinery of sadism – but also the camaraderie of the station kids who have nothing in the world but each other; the ancient ties of honour between Hathoda Tyagi, the hammer-wielding brute assassin, and his gang leader, "the great bahurupiya", the man of a hundred faces.
In this India, democracy is a bitter joke, the machinery of the state wide open to exploitation by those with money, power and asses of iron. The only values to which nearly everyone in the book pays homage (the exception being Sara, the righteously campaigning mistress) are those of impermanence, equanimity and non-attachment pronounced by Lord Krishna on the eve of battle in the Bhagavad Gita. And if the different tales of which the novel is composed do not hang together, that's because India itself does not, and cannot. "There was no big picture," the narrator declares. "There were no grand connections. There were only endless small pieces, and all you could do was to somehow manage your own ...."
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