Karan Madhok’s novel A Beautiful Decay contrives a response to the rise of a select few people to power, and the everyday quality of bigotry privileged people have come to accept and even celebrate casually for momentary gain. Besides being a commentary on privilege and power, it also deftly lays bare the mechanics of caste-hetero-patriarchy. Told through the perspective of 21-year-old Vishnu Agarwal, who is killed in the US in an act of hate crime by a recently laid-off white man, it is a story that’s becoming commonplace.

In the novel, Vishnu says that his death has given him a chance to “binge-watch” his life. However, the context in which this story gets told, and the many worldviews it wrestles with, underlines the business of what makes nation-states great. Or the conditions that help enable and accelerate this process to make them so begs us this question: Who bears the cost of?

It is a treat to read a new voice in fiction writing. In an interview with Scroll, Madhok talked about what went into writing A Beautiful Decay, writerly anxieties in the age of ChatGPT, and his next book. Excerpts from the conversation:

Were you particularly inspired by any of the afterlife narratives you must have read before or during working on this book? Or did this narration come naturally to you for the story?
I don’t think there was any one particular afterlife narrative that inspired my work before I’d begun writing it. It was only in hindsight that some readers have made the connection to other narratives, like Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu (where, remarkably, our dying men share the name of the same deity) and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. But I feel that my approach to the posthumous storytelling voice was radically different: in the rules of A Beautiful Decay’s universe, death allows for a type of godlike omniscience, a superpower, breaking through the limits of matter and spacetime. The Vishnu in my novel can truly be “everything, everywhere, all at once” – not through the theoretical possibility of parallel universes as it is in that film Everything Everywhere All at Once, but through the very real destiny of death, which we shall all face one day.

Additionally, with the benefit of hindsight, can you tell us how Vishnu’s voice sort of helped you manoeuvre conversations and mine insights into the time and space in which the novel is set in in a way that it may not have been possible had you chosen a different narrator?
Vishnu’s voice – or should I say, his newfound posthumous perspective – is the entire driving force of this novel. The dead have no constraints of time and space. So, Vishnu can peek into his own past life or his parents’ childhoods, even to the point of his own conception, and then shift forward to see the world move on in the future without him, eavesdrop on the lives of people whom he never encountered when he was alive, teleport from Washington DC to New Delhi to Varanasi to New York City and on and on.

Perhaps the choice of a different narrator would’ve made it an interesting tale, too, told from a limited, yet equally compelling perspective. But it wouldn’t have been this story – the story of Vishnu experiencing the complexities of identity and the generational impact of causes and effects leading to his death. And this is the story that I wanted to tell.

The novel begins with “Suno”, and there are several sentence fragments in Hindi, especially the swearing – Vishnu’s father calls him an “absent-minded chootia” or how Vishnu describes the US president, “president Gaandu-face”. While it may be obvious that because the protagonist lived in Delhi, he talks like this, it still merits asking why you chose to include them in the English telling of the story. In the sense that if something is happening in the Hindi heartland and everyone is speaking in Hindi, should the story be told in Hindi and how difficult (or easy) is it to render it in English (by translating it implicitly)?
As an author, I’m most comfortable communicating through English – and I feel that any such “choice” of preferred language automatically means a negation or loss of other tongues, including my mother tongue: Hindi. I’m proficient in Hindi, but not in literary Hindi. These choices and limitations set an automatic framework around the story I choose to tell, even if about half the story takes place in the Hindi heartland. I admit that there is an inevitable loss here in translating some of the inherent Hindi-ness (or more accurately, the Hindustani-ness) of the prose, but my priority is to communicate the story in the best possible way I can, which is, largely, in English.

The somewhat-Hinglish voice of Vishnu seemed perfectly logical to me. He was born and raised in the Hindi-English-Urdu-Bhojpuri-Punjabi belt of Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi, where many of us communicate in a hodgepodge of these tongues.

Several peripheral characters in your book offer powerful commentary. One of them is Sanjeet, who dissects so cleverly why we have an aristocratic-like life in India and that it doesn’t matter if you are Third World rich in the US because the privileges don’t come that easy. You have to be uber-rich to enjoy those privileges in the US. And another one is a wonderful conversation between Kareem and Lakshman, the two working-class people having a heart-to-heart conversation after work. There are vignettes in which Vishnu reflects on other aspects, too. Did you see these minor interjections and tangential discussions playing a crucial role in centralising the core of the novel in some ways?
My intention to include these secondary/peripheral characters was to further show a world
that is decentralised from Vishnu. Vishnu is, of course, the central protagonist of the tale, and by extension, the closest people to him (like his parents and his friends) form an emotional orbit around him. But one of the main themes of the book is this decentralisation – a reminder of the idea that the world doesn’t revolve around any one of us. Vishnu and Sanjeet shared a brief period of friendship, but Sanjeet’s life will go on beyond Vishnu; he is his own person, with his own agency. Similarly, the characters of Kareem and Lakshman are a reminder to Vishnu of his own privilege and how fortunate his cocooned life has been in comparison to theirs. Their lives are important and filled with daily challenges, too – and they have their own orbit, independent of Vishnu.

Karan Madhok with his book “A Beautiful Decay”. | Instagaram.

How did you approach writing Shankar, Vishnu’s father? What was your research like, did you study historical figures to develop his character?
I consider Shankar to be a very contemporary figure, one of the many men from small post-liberalisation Indian towns, who have climbed the rubble of government inefficiencies, corruption, and loopholes to amass a fortune for themselves. These are men (and rarely, women) who have been hardened by a life of struggle, and view the world as a zero-sum game: where they believe that if you don’t finish first, you finish last. Shankar often tells Vishnu: “Your comfort is someone else’s catastrophe.” He is someone who has been close to the brink of catastrophe in his life, who knows what catastrophe feels like and will fight aggressively to hold on to his comforts.

You also sprinkle a few notes on computer programming and reading the whole VPN thing when we are introduced to Mark Tillerman, I felt like it was a sublime way to communicate how a world is also engineered. The zeros and the ones, and the intermediates, how select inputs render particular outputs and sometimes the program is so structured that no matter what goes in, you know the outcome for sure. Was that the intention, or is it a stretched reading of the work?
The language of computer programming mirrors themes of philosophical determinism, where one may believe that we are void of any free will, where – like The Matrix – the “code” of our life is already written and structured, the outcome pre-determined. It is also an allusion to the quantum mechanics concept of “particles”, where matter and reality are expressed in the neat packets of 1s and 0s, and clear rights and wrongs.

But the novel also proposes the opposite of these themes – an acceptance of that wave-particle duality. Vishnu, who often as a student saw the world in its 1s and 0s, now sees it as the grey area in between, where there are no closed packets anymore, but a clear stream of connection between everything that he has experienced – and even everything he hasn’t.

When you write a novel like that, are you trying to fight the rise of hate with it? Or, to put it this way, should we expect a novel (or literature) to do such a thing? Is it fair to attach a responsibility to them to bring about change? Essentially, I am asking about the role of the writer in a maddeningly changing world and what a novel should do?
Not just literature, but I feel that the arts in general (fine arts, music, theatre, cinema, etcetera) are often viewed as a beacon to both educate and entertain, and serve as a reflection of the world. In my view, novels and other forms of art can only provide you a platter of options. These are, at the end of the day, just stories. The responsibility lies in the heart of people themselves: Are they willing to truly immerse themselves in these stories? Are they willing to have an open mind and critically think about what these stories represent?

What are your views about creative writing programmes and workshopping literary works?
Personally, the creative writing programme was a great experience for me, because it gave me a chance to be around a community of serious creative writers. A number of people in other professions – medicine, journalism, finance – benefit from the camaraderie of a professional community. The same can (and should) be true of the creative arts as well.

Does it worry you, the increasing use of AI-based software to develop literary works? What changes do you anticipate in the literary landscape with AI chatbots like ChatGPT?
I think if one’s work is original enough – and resists being derivative as much as possible – then there is no need to fear AI-based software. AI will create art based on pre-existing art. So, it should push the rest of us human artists to create the type of art that has hardly existed before.

I think that more books will indeed be written by programmes like ChatGPT. But it will be up to the (human) reader to decide if they’re happy with a somewhat-predictable narrative versus something that opens an unfamiliar new door. Different readers will have different preferences, and I don’t think there’s a single right answer.

Is there anything that you are working on next?
For the past few years, I have been working on a nonfiction travelogue for the Aleph Book Company – a personal exploration of the culture of cannabis in India. It has been a revelatory and exciting experience to travel to new parts of the country and learn about the journey of this ancient plant: its history and spirituality, science and cultivation, legality and crime, pop culture impact, industry, medicine, and much more. I can’t wait for you all to read it.