Seduction comes easily to Kunal Basu.

He rolls them out like the golden apples that the champion Greek runner Hippomenes throws at the feet of Atlanta, the virgin huntress whom he is hoping to outrun. In his latest novel, In An Ideal World, that depicts a far from ideal world, the golden apples are what distract the reader from the muddied race track of everyday Indian politics, that get murkier by the day, if not the next tweet by a troll on the roll.

Clash of ideologies

No marks for guessing who the contending runners might be. There’s Altaf Hussein, a representative of the liberal ideology as practised in the newly endowed university campus at Manhar that has sprouted like a glass and steel carbuncle in a remote area of the West Bengal countryside. He belongs to the weaver community and some of the most seductive passages are those that take place in their mohalla as Basu reaches into the neighbourhood in search for the missing Altaf.

As his Hindu nemesis at the same University there is Bobby, or Vivek Sengupta, who has a more complicated lineage. It’s through the anguished intervention of his parents, the middle-class but bien pensant Senguptas living in Kolkata, the father Joy, a bank manager, the mother Rohini, a school teacher, that Basu creates the trajectory of the novel. Much to the shock and ensuing distress of the parents, Bobby is a member of the Nationalists, as the right-wing group is called.

In the first of the golden apple moments, we meet Mira Mitter at Flury’s, the iconic Kolkata cafe cum restaurant on Park Street as she enters through a squall to connect with Joy Sengupta whom she has somewhat imperiously summoned. Her face is reflected in the candlelight like one of the heroines in a Ray sequence. The current has failed ,as indeed, has their early attraction to each other.

The waiter, Gomes, who is hovering in the shadows, comes to the rescue. He immediately suggests what Mira might have, when she looks, as we are told, at the confectionery counter. This is what people do at Flury’s, revolutions and nationalists uprisings be damned. They look at the confectionery counter. And for some of us, this is equally what makes Basu so riveting – he knows his Kolkata like a conjuror of good times past.

“ ‘Yes, Madam, we have mutton, chicken and veg patties.’ Gomes, who’d been lurking in the dark, was quick on cue. ‘We can offer you buttercream cake, plum cake, black forest cake, cheesecake...’”

Flash forward

While the two of them settle for chicken patties and espressos, we get flashbacks from their past as student activists during that most exciting of periods in the city’s history. To be Red and rocking with the thrill of the student protests of the late sixties was to be part of the Molotov cocktail generation. Or, as Mimi enlists the support of her former comrade and perchance bunker boyfriend, the urgency of her appeal to save Altaf who has disappeared from the campus, owes something to Basu’s own recollections of Kolkata under the Naxalites.

Do we designate them as Neo Naxalibs? And those who oppose them advocating a revised theocracy of a Hindustan only for Hindus – do we designate them neo-Liberationists who live in Trollistan? Or perhaps just as the “cheesecakes” and the “samosas” that the Senguptas partake of as they rappel down the class divide? There’s something deliciously quaint about the two quotations that introduce these modern binaries, as the pistol shot to mark the beginning of a race. One of them is from MS Golwalkar, and the other, by Ernesto Che Guevara. One almost sympathises with Bobby for not wanting to engage with his dad.

It’s also interesting to compare the theme of compliant fathers and sons from a different source with a slight time-warp, Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic, first published in the New Yorker in 1994, with Basu’s Joy and Bobby. Kureishi, being the more exuberant writer, daubs the relationship between Pervez—the first-generation-brash, fresh-out-of-Punjab, taxi driver in London – and his chaste Quran- reading son Ali, with broad strokes of derision. There’s never been anything subtle or nuanced about Kureishi, hence his popularity amongst the elite literary establishment of the West.

Through the increasingly fundamentalist Islamic rhetoric of Ali, which allows Kureishi to pillory the prevailing British establishment – only to entertain them of course – we get to see two forms of patriarchal behaviour in action. Pervez even hopes his son might become a bank manager, one of the more accessible symbols of power in a capitalist society. Let us also add as an aside that Basu never fails to insert his own small mementos of anti-capitalist Nixon-Kissinger era barbs into the text.

Comatose country

Basu is far more sympathetic to the chasm that exists between Joy and Bobby. It’s not a conflict of ideas as much as a failure to engage at all. Maybe this too reflects the larger loss of credibility between what we may call broadly as the post-Independence generation and the millennials.

While the parents and professors at Bobby’s college have been guarding their bastions of privilege, securing networks of information that provide safe houses and conduits to ensuring the status quo as they did in the Naxalite era, their offspring have nothing but contempt for what they see as the hypocrisy of the Mira Mitter elite. Oddly enough, Basu, unlike Kureishi and his good-hearted prostitute Bettina, appears to abandon Mira in the melee that follows the combat of choices that define Altaf and Bobby.

While reflecting the current zeitgeist of a country that has been passively watching these events unfold on their TV screens night after night with the baying of hyena-like moderators, Basu enlists the support of a nebulous figure named Dadhichi. He is another version of Gomes, offering choices that the boys who have come to his adda cannot refuse. Their lives are so interminably and utterly banal.

If Bobby slips into a coma somewhere towards the end of the novel, I cannot help but ask Basu whether it is a similar type of non-action or drift that we are witnessing as we are battered by a barrage of defeatist ideologies from diverse political parties.

“I wrote this novel in anguish,” explained Basu in an email exchange. He was wintering in Kolkata before returning to Oxford where he resides. “The theme that I find disturbing is that the current polemics is broader than partisan politics; it is a bifurcation of our soul as Indians, which hasn’t left any aspect of life untouched, including the family. Joy and Rohini can’t forsake their son, despite everything; neither can Bobby, who urges his parents to flee before the cataclysm begins.”

He also explained that the characterisation of Bobby who appears as something of a passive participant, with knee jerk motivations rather than an internalised agenda that goes beyond the slogans that are programmed into him, as typical of the mind-games that prevailed in the past. Or, as Basu put it: “I had seen Bobby not as a wimp, but as self-righteous, as ardent Nationalists usually are. He is moved by misery (of their maid Ratna, for example), and wants to do good. But he’s fallen prey to Dadhichi’s fanaticism. I’d witnessed such a phenomenon in my university years as well with Naxalites, burning with the zeal of revolution but brainwashed into a reign of terror. You are dead right – I had put him into a coma because it is allegorical with our state of affairs. What will this nation be when it wakes up – if it wakes up?”

As we are being ushered into a new form of Crypto-capitalism with Web3 assertions of dominance that invoke phantoms far more pervasive than a humanoid like Dadhichi swathed in his myths of Hindu triumphalism, one can only wonder if, like Bobby, being embalmed in chemically induced sleep is the better option for some of us.

In An Ideal World, Kunal Basu. Penguin Random House.