One of the greatest advantages of residing in Mhow is having three good libraries within a radius of two Kms. The icing on the cake is that all these libraries face an identical problem during this part of the year; how to expend the budgetary allotment for purchase of new books before the end of the financial year !
As one approaches the new arrivals corner of the library , there’s the distinct ambiance of a posh books store . Picked up the latest novel of Upamanyu Chatterjee “The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian ” and not disappointed at all.
The setting is similar to ‘English August’ and ‘The Mammaries of a Welfare State’. A young anglophile bureaucrat in a rural district moving about as a detached observer looking on everything minutely at times incredulously yet not being judgmental. He just goes about doing his sarkari stuff like a true karma yogi.
The title is rather misleading. In the polarized world we inhabit today, mental auto-fill would complete the title to “revenge of the non-vegetarian ….against vegetarians” ; and nothing could be far from truth. If anything , it is the revenge of a forced vegetarian against well to do, practicing non vegetarians. After all , in India most non vegetarians are forced into vegetarianism not by religion or politics but sheer economics.
The plot revolves around a crime in a fictional province of India ,Narmada Pradesh, in India easily identifiable as Madhya Pradesh with some characteristics of Bihar and Bengal thrown in. A servant bludgeons to death the entire family of his employer for some beef stew and some grudge against not being fed properly .
The rest of the story is about the predictable but long meandrous course that the justice system is India takes. The crime is committed in 1949 and there is some kind of conclusion in 1973. For some reason the protagonist , a passionate lover of all kinds of meat, vows to turn vegetarian till the culprit is hanged.
As it happens, it is not just the lawyers, but every criminal is well aware of the loopholes in the justice system in India. An accused can keep prolonging the trial and conviction. Even after conviction and sentence, there is a whole series of hurdles before the sentence becomes final. For someone sentenced to death, there are special provisions for appeals and confirmations ; the whole process goes on for years till the final relief comes through mercy petitions to the President of India. For the record, there are over 350 prisoners on death row and only four were hanged in the past 15 years. A passing thought on the present status of persons convicted in the horrendous Delhi rape case of 2012, prompted me to google; to find that the law is still on its course to justice. The juvenile culprit, who is now no more a juvenile, even by the dubious records of Indian Census has already walked free.
Coming back to Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel, the narrative is almost in slow motion, gently moving on from one scene to another, with hardly any twists or turns. Yet the book is “un-putdownable “. It is like a series of haiku poems just describing the scenes in detail and leaving the actions and dialogues to the imagination of the readers.
There is plenty of black humour as always, in this case the gallows humour is not just figurative but literal. He talks of the ‘never say die attitude ‘ of a death row convict fighting through the legal system to stay alive.
It is published by Speaking Tiger publications and the hard bound edition costs
₹ 350/-. Oh, I love libraries !