Doomsday predictions and puns have been oft-deployed devises for satirists down the ages to launch blistering attacks on established systems or popular canons. In the sub-continent, writers like Khushwant Singh, Ismat Chugtai, Sadaat Hasan Manto, Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor, Richard Crasta, Tarun Tejpal and lately newbies like Nilanjana S. Roy — to name a few among the hundreds — have used mockery and canvases of doom to bizarre and humorous effect.
Blogger-turned writer, Shovon Chowdhury, an adman by profession, has painted a grim fictional picture of India under an autocratic “Competent Authority”- a Stalin-like character – who rules India with an iron fist sometime in the future after the Chinese have nuked the country in a deadly war between forces of democracy and Left oligarchs. Chowdhury, who has a flair for conjuring “lurid but somewhat uncanny scenarios with fearsome esoteric arts like telepathy being used as a tool of governance and a weapon in a cold war between India and China”.
In his debut fiction — serialized earlier in his blog — “The Competent Authority (Aleph Book Company) ” — Chowdhury harks back to George Orwell and Bengali limerick king Sukumar Ray (father of iconic filmmaker Satyajit Ray) to compare India to land of warped zombies, watched incessantly by telepathic minds. He describes his inspirations as “riding on the back of giants”.
The country comes across a radio active battlefield with scarred citizens and a Bureau of Reconstruction which is rebuilding the country post war and hiring “telepaths” to police inland and along the international borders . Bombay has blown away from the map and Delhi ravaged.
A sinister plot unfolds as “The Competent Authority (CA)” allows power to get into its head. The authority – a man – is planning to annihilate everyone in the country for reasons and threats best known to him. The only ones who can stop him are Pintoo, a 12-year-old mind warrior from Shanti Nagar, where all the poor people live, and three of his reluctant henchmen, Hemonto Chatterjee, a pessimistic but determined CBI officer, Pande, a corrupt police officer and Ali, the last surviving member of the al-Qaeda.
The story is a reflection of the currently-positioned India as a land of contrasts. It is one of the most corrupt countries — susceptible to the pulls of democracy and political power mongers, the most powerful of whom is the Competent Authority . At the same time, it is the most vulnerable as well— to giants within and outside the borders.
The regime is alien to most Indians – especially those who have not lived through the years of Emergency— and democratic electors of Shanti Nagar, a forlorn race who cannot accept the authoritarian regime. Corruption festers and the Reconstruction Bureau works to a clockwork military precision.
A nightmare of a hospital – Bank of Bodies- takes care of public health. It trades Pintoo’s “good arm” to give industrialist Sanjeev Verma’s son Pappu a new arm, after the later loses it by chance. The Bank of Bodies is reminiscent of Bollywood’s hit movie, “Munnabhai MBBS” in which the protagonist urges his sidey to bring fresh bodies. Humans have been reduced to mere bodies in the voiceless system. A godman, Dharti Pakar, who runs the “Art of Breathing” is manhandled by policeman Pande after a massive infiltration attempt in the cadre of telepaths rendering them inoperative.
Scary. Shape of things to come, warns writer Chowdhury. “I wanted to talk about certain things in a satirical manner. The combination of horror and seriousness make a satire,” writer Chowdhury tells this writer with a laugh. The genial writer masks “a dark cynicism about the way the country is being managed” beneath his easy going ways.
“Not right”, he says.
Homour and satire have been the writer’s strengths since school days. “They used to make me stand up on the bench for my impertinent remarks and humorous comment. But it took me a long time put my growing intolerance with the system and the inherent humour together in my blog which is barely one-and-half years old,” he said.
Chowdhury said he did not need any external triggers to write his heart out. “All that I saw on the television were inspiring enough. Different people have different reactions. Some throw chappals (walking shoes), some throw stones and some rotten tomatoes. Remember Union minister Kapil Sibal’s decisions,” he said.
The writer takes politics across all shades in his novel – the most interesting among them being the Maoist guerrillas, who operate in the heartland Indian states. They attack Sanjeev Verma’s quarry located in the midst of the red terrain and shoot the “slaves (workers)” despite the presence of a large South African resistant militia .
The Maoist, says the writer, are protected by the Bengal Protectorate, which has seceded from India to merge with China as a protectorate after the war. They are stocked by “Chinese Bengal” with light mortars, drones and few light tanks. The Maoists use the strike as a pressure tactic- to pile heat.
The country runs like a rusty junk ship. The laws are obsolete, mostly those related to corruption. “It exists currently – the Section 197 of CrPC 1973 which says no public servant cane be prosecuted in court without the permission of senior official. How many bureaucrats or police officer go to jail. A policeman can do anything to you,” the writer said. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) of 1861 has not been changed to tailor to the needs of an Independent India.
“It was drafted soon after the mutiny of 1857 to ensure that the natives did not rise in revolt again. It still holds good…,” Chowdhury said
The Competent Authority is a situation “you are living in now”, Chowdhury said. “The book is not pure fantasy… Though the characters were built from scratch – completely fictional,” he said.
The enterprising writer has carried the spillover of his book to a Facebook campaign on the “Trilokpuri incident “ of 1984 in which over 350 people of the Sikh faith were slaughtered in the riots that ensued after the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Chowdhury refers to the mayhem indirectly in his book. “The memories have erased. I want to revive them,” Chowdhury said.
An extension of his Competent Authority narrative is on the floor. “…About Calcutta under Chinese rule,” he spilled amid laughter. The sheer freedom of satirists!
The Competent Authority
Aleph Book Company, Priced Rs 495