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Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel Villainy opens with an unidentified body in the park, eponymously lending itself to the title of an eyeball-grabbing first chapter. What could have been a nod to the self-contained, hermetically sealed spaces of Agatha Christie’s many bodies in libraries and manors and quaint country houses, is instead the raucous chaos of a quintessentially Delhi RWA park.
The body lies there, Bata sneakers and khaki trousers sticking out under hibiscus bushes, calling attention to itself, disrupting the morning perambulations of a genteel middle class that is first fascinated with a potential murder in their dull as proverbial ditch water lives, and then repelled by the humdrumness of the probability of it being a death by natural causes: “death by natural causes was really no fun at all.”
No one wants to take responsibility for calling the police. No one wants to be “involved”. It is left to the chowkidar-caretaker at the park to stand guard, to stand in proxy for his middle class employers who would rather not sully their hands or their pristine, post-walk / yoga / laughter therapy mornings with the rude irritant of an unidentified dead body. And right there, sneaking in, much like an unsavoury smell, is the uncomfortable intersection between privilege and class, social responsibility and public apathy, public persona and private prejudice that defines much of Chatterjee’s narrative.
The storyline of the novel is all too familiar to anyone who has followed the lives of the rich and the famous in post-liberalisation urban India. A teenager in the late 1990s, drunk on too much privilege and too little responsibility, commits not one but two murders and almost gets away with it. With the bare bones of this plot of every family with privilege protecting its male offspring from the consequences of their poor choices, Chatterjee fashions a tale of justice and retribution, of the villainy of the world and the complicity of those who look away.
A total of nineteen years separate the murders from the discovery of the body in the park, and Chatterjee allows his story to unfold over this period of nearly two decades, almost mirroring the pace at which criminal cases drag through courtrooms, periods of intense activity interspersed with waiting and delays and the unease of not knowing what happens next.
Villainy tells the story of two teenaged boys, close enough in age, separated by the huge chasm of class. Pukhraj, scion of the Saraf family, prospective inheritor of his father’s flourishing jewellery business, likes luxury cars, expensive guns, drugs, and gambling. His unlikely and only friend, Parmatma, is his driver’s son, as invested in studying and building a future for himself as Pukhraj is in chasing Ecstasy with beer and breaking speed limits on highways.
There is a clear consciousness of class identity in their relationship. Parmatma’s job, as friend yet lesser, is to orbit Pukhraj, never quite aspiring to parity with him. Pukhraj steals away his father’s car, high on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, and in a fit of rage, commits his first murder, following it up with a second to silence an unwitting witness. Parmatma is supposed, of course, to take the fall for it.
Pukhraj’s friendship does not quite extend to telling the truth or suffering consequences. Both boys are taken into custody and their lives thrown into the peculiar, disruptive rhythm of prison life. What follows is an indictment of the legal system as well as the structures of class and power that insulate and protect those with the deepest pockets.
The novel exposes multiple fault lines of the legal and penal systems. Starting with a judge who needs to set “an auspicious date on which to kickstart proceedings” in consultation with the almanac, the absurdities pile on. Judge Lodhi, keen on garnering media attention from what looks like an “important” case, wishes to advance his career with the new visibility he has been given but is not averse to accepting a bribe before he delivers his judgement. Witness accounts are made to change with either money or by coercion. Expensive lawyers with their plummy, expensive accents, put paid to any naïve ideas of truth-telling.
The timeline might be that of the 90s, but the ability to manipulate facts and re-narrativise events with a slant, is just as pronounced in Pukhraj’s world as it is in our own. After all, nothing spells post-truth more efficiently than the sacrifice of facts in the service of lucre.
Chatterjee’s account of prison life is an exposé of corruption and rot at all discernible levels. The boys’ lives are governed entirely by their spending ability. Services can be bought; comfort can be paid for; a marginal circle of safety can be drawn around them. Pukhraj has access to his Gucci shoes and his Diesel jeans and his preferred shampoo.
If the inmates miss home too much, they can be “checked into” the hospital closest to home. “You can go anywhere you want on medical grounds. Most of our VIPs find AIIMS most agreeable for the entire duration of their prison terms,” they are told. The boy with only borrowed privilege soon learns that it was crucial to just survive, to get through each day, without suffering any further violence / humiliation / indignity.
Class remains an undeniable presence in this story of urban, upmarket India. The Sarafs seem to function within a feudal system where they can claim complete ownership over the people in their employ. In this closely aligned structure of caste and class, the lives of those on the lower rungs of the ladder do not matter. Their betters cannot possibly “waste time talking about the lower classes.”
Language itself becomes a currency of class privilege, with strict codes of who can say what. Pukhraj’s father, Nemichand, the patriarch, the all-important employer, has no tolerance for abusive language, even when not directed at him, from those he perceives as his lessers: “He should never have given that low class cop that drink. When he himself mouthed the foulest obscenities it was the privilege of his wealth; when others did so in his presence it was lèse-majesté.” In this world of stark binaries, slums are razed with no tears shed for the suddenly homeless and the plight of four year old children employed in firework factories moves no one to any action.
The novel also takes cognisance of that great Indian social unit – the patriarchal family. Pukhraj, while entirely irredeemable, is nothing but a product of patriarchal parenting that deems the male child entirely incapable of doing wrong. His monstrosity is not inherent but cultivated. Abuse begets abuse; violence begets violence.
With a father who likes expensive cars more than he likes his own child, and a mother incapable of standing up to her abusive husband and therefore choosing to invest all her emotional energy into her son, into indulging his every whim, Pukhraj is every Freudian-Lacanian man-monster brought to life. In a seeming over-simplification, the driver and his son, with all their reduced circumstances, share a far healthier relationship. That trope of Hindi cinema, the poor family that sticks together when selfishness tears the rich apart, is pretty much a part of this schema.
The book does have a certain cinematic quality, right from its opening scene to the final confrontation; a confrontation that takes on the quality of a morality play, with its easy dichotomy of good and evil. What throws this apparent binary into relief is the question of complicity. How does one define villainy?
The author helps. He says, “One can never be fully certain either of what constitutes villainy, of whether it is not governed just as much as the principle of uncertainty by the four cardinal characteristics of time, location, movement and spin, and of whether it is not just as unstable, volatile- and slippery, in short.”
We confront here, the villainy of an unfair, imbalanced, hostile world, yes, but we must also confront the villainy of complicity. Allowing status-quo to prevail, fearing the upset of proverbial apple carts, the ennui that defines human behaviour, is perhaps what makes us all complicit in the personal tragedies of a Parmatma or an innocent young boy who dies for no fault of his.
Villainy, in telling the story it does, breaks no new ground. It does not say anything radically new. It only speaks a truth we are only too familiar with, with frightening accuracy, laughing from within at human frailty and the choices we refuse to make.
Villainy, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger Books.
Upamanyu Chatterjee asks in his new novel what villainy is, and offers uncomfortable answers – Scroll.in