Yes, this is what I wanted to call this book. No, not because there is some writing scam that I’m trying to expose, but because there are four key words that weave this novel by P A Krishnan. The acronym SCAM, in this context, means: SENSUAL | CORRUPTION | ASSAM | MILITANCY.
Though this may surprise readers, but yes, the sensual and the sexual content is gently meandering within the anguish that corruption erupts into… it marches boldly with new definitions with the moments of radicalism and the anti-establishment fervour… it also silently meditates with the inner and outer eye of an aware tourist… yes, this is surely the way I’d describe this work.
There is inspiration, disgust, investigation, insurgency, politics, bureaucracy, scams, passion, Assam, excise, corruption, and beauty played out in the best possible words and in simplified layers to make a part of the complexity of India readable and understandable.
Before going further, let us have the details of the novel that is being reviewed:
Title: The Muddy River | Author: P.A. Krishnan | Publisher: Tranquebar | Pages: 248 | Genre: Political fiction
To Reema Sahay, in her review of this novel, this book ‘almost seems to be a real story – multi-layered, multi-dimensional and complex’… and if such comments don’t make you want to know what the novel is all about, probably a few quotes will… let me attempt to reveal the essence of the novel layer by layer making use of the acronym that I have already talked about: SCAM.
However, a few sentences about the story first. The story is about a bureaucrat who questions and investigates, a manager who gets kidnapped, the manager’s wife who shapes trust in her own aggressive way, a police officer who has cynicism written all over his uniform, a Gandhian who seems adamant to connect everything with a doctrine that seems to groan, a wily CM, and a local assistant who keeps balancing between the world as her eyes see and the world as her mind wishes it to be!
Quite a handful, right? Yes, all these characters tell us a lot about the way the human mind functions, the way scams happen, the way investigation can or cannot happen, the way money interacts with personalities and moments to create what we call life.
The sensual elements that the writer touches upon range from the basely human to the divinely cosmic! He pretends to be coy about being very transparent about the sensual and is constantly finding out means to talk about them in a not-so-clear tone and language. Here is an example:
‘Let him complete the story, Ramesh.’
‘As I said, Shiva was wandering all over the universe with the body of Sati on his shoulder. The earth froze as the sun lost its sting. Apprehending the end of the cosmos, the Gods approached Vishnu who flung his discus, which cut the body of Sati into fifty-one pieces. The part that included Sati’s… mmm… Sati’s private parts fell here and this temple was built on that site.’
‘This is the site of the Cosmic Vagina, Sukanya. Her blood turned blue and coalesced into this mountain.’
The metaphors that Krishnan picks up are local, to say the least, and don’t seem blatant nor annoying. They do appear a bit childishly gleeful, though. Whatever they appear to be, they do tickle the gonadal region rather well and are, importantly, not keeping the main theme of the novel from floundering into a sexual escapade! The writer simply stops and goes on as if breasts that are the size of wood apples have ceased to matter and that there are more important things to talk about.
Anupama Phukan arrives late at night, drenched in rain. She has the breasts of an adolescent, firm and the size of wood apples. They peer defiantly through her wet blouse. She is unconcerned that I am staring at her. She introduces me to Bura.
The sensual does take a couple of unintended turns into the explicit domain… that is, the writer does create space for them, but then characteristically, swerves away before he falls headlong into it! Rather sad, I’d say, but then it is entirely the writer’s choice when he decides to stay away very valid lures.
I am a voyeur after all. I tiptoe my way back to the window and gingerly part the curtains a few inches. The other window neatly frames an elderly couple. The man must be on the wrong side of seventy. The woman appears to be in her sixties. Both are naked. The man is kneading her flappy breasts and the woman is coaxing his manhood to respond. Her face brims over with happiness.
I don’t have the heart to watch their congress. I come back to my bed. One of the ugliest sights in the world must be a man humping a woman.
Notice how the writer chooses to use a word like ‘congress’ in its less known meaning… loved it. The last line quoted above does take us deeper into the mind of the writer and will surely quiz a lot of people all over as many would consider a ‘man humping a woman’ akin to watching ‘art in real life’!
The writer does have a nice story-telling mode for implying the menace of corruption that is plaguing society at all levels today. And he does this with a lot of aplomb. The first example given below is vastly different from the one given later, but both highlight intimate anatomical facts of corruption!
Within fifteen minutes, the guest house is crawling with policemen. The superintendent of police comes in and smartly salutes the patriarch.
‘Had we known about your visit, sir, we would have made foolproof security arrangements.’
‘Officer, this is not the first time I am coming to Kokrajar. I think it was meant to scare away our friend here. Are you sure this is not the work of one of your men?’
Description such as the one that follow may appear to be be-fuddling at first but have a tendency to simplify the complexity that surrounds corrupt practices. This also tells a reader that the writer has indeed either done a lot of research or has had a first-hand experience of such social inconsistencies…
‘Front-loading? What is front-loading?’
‘Transmission line construction has three distinct stages. You cast the foundations, erect the towers and string the lines across them. If the a project costs one hundred rupees, the casting of foundations will cost you approximately forty rupees and the other two stages thirty rupees each. The ratio is roughly 40:30:30. The contractors usually quote very high rates for the first stage and unreasonably low rates for the other two stages.’
‘I am beginning to understand now. These fellows try and make a load of money at the foundation stage itself, don’t they?’
As the car swerves away from the river front I catch a fleeting glimpse of the Brahmaputra.
‘This is an amazing river. I don’t think I will ever be tired of it.’
‘That is because you don’t have to earn a living here,’ says Anupama. Her eyes are amazing too. They are limpid, flashing almonds. ‘Ask the people who live by the river. They will gladly change places with you.’
Yes, there are many sentences and paragraphs that simply go off the main theme of the novel to bring to us the beauty of the region, its people, the way interactions take place and so on.
Consider the four passages taken as examples of the chilling factor that accompanies militancy of any kind. The writer knows very well that militancy is not uni-dimensional and that there are connections that come from all directions.
Example 1 connects militancy with the way the government interacts with it… and the novel has not just this but a lot more to take a reader deeper into this relationship.
He pauses for breath. ‘I am explaining the violence and not condoning it. I have no doubt that we must resist the militants. But the government’s methods are not right.’
‘Which other method then? The Gandhian method?’
‘I don’t know. But I am certain that the bulldozing techniques of the central government are not the answer.’
Example 2 uses minimal words to set the chill-factor deep into psyches… what happens before the old man grins and what happens after are what connect militancy to his advice.
‘I am not sure, young man,’ the old man grins. ‘Ramesh, sleep with your windows closed and the door firmly locked. It is hardly two in the afternoon now…’
Example 3 talks about the basic assumptions that most of us have about the machinations of militancy.
‘What is a humble engineer’s ransom?’
‘I know what a businessman’s ransom is, sir. It varies between…’
‘Let me tell you what a humble engineer’s ransom is. It is zero. Tell them that government companies don’t pay ransom. We are prepared to start developmental activities in and around Ranikhata. We shall…’
Example 4 simply unravels a part of the mystery of insurgency… and tells us what may lie at the bottom of all that pretends to be an ethical dogma or a salvation doctrine.
‘You have been lucky, Mrs Ghosh. Things could have taken a different turn. They could easily have sent proof that he was no longer alive. It was not a good idea to irritate them.’
‘What irritates them is lack of money, Mr Chandran. Please give them the money they have demanded.’
A few other important aspects of this novel include the choice of narrative and the choice of fonts used.
One reviewer wrote: ‘The language is illustrious.’ This is ridiculous! The language is simply trying to imitate the region and the theme it is describing and does this without many blemishes. It isn’t brimming with memorable quotes or turns of phrases that will linger on…
The narrative that tries to symbolise the real and the virtual does it with a rather innovative use of fonts chosen… and one does tend to fall in love with the font as one reads on though the novel at first appears like library documentation that simply has a colourful cover for a change!
With a tad bit of reluctance I must admit that I liked reading the novel… though I may not re-read it like I did, for instance, ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel or even ‘Great expectations’ by Dickens. This one isn’t in the league of the great writings though if the writer really gets down to it, he may give us something better and more lasting.
14 December 2011