“I’d have never stepped out without a Plan B. Not in a manic city like Aukatabad. 

But who is listening? We had stopped listening to each other long before it came to this. Long before there were angry slugs buzzing above our heads...”  

Just like this, the novel Spellcasters starts abruptly in the fictional city of Aukatabad, modelled on the Delhi-Noida-Gurgaon belt, and races across other fictional cities and towns mirroring some well-known cities, towns and places of India amidst chaos and confusion. In his latest venture, Rajat Chaudhuri has woven a fabric of dreams, magic and reality that paints a portrait of the dance of consumerism. Packaged as part thriller, part fantasy, this climate fiction tells the story of modern Indian cities beset with collective anxiety of rising consumerism and conflicting values.

The democratisation of desire and the horrific toll it has taken on our planet comes alive in this racy tale. Some passages evoke myriad emotions through poetic imageries of darkness that lurks in every corner of the glitz of the rising superstructures and burgeoning wealth of urban India. The protagonist embodies the duality of our contemporary existence torn between mind and matter, possession and enlightenment. This is an assiduous tale of our arduous journey to create wealth leaving our planet dry.

The Indian postmodern existence

The narrative is designed as a thriller. A major mystery hangs over the protagonist as he journeys with his secretive companions, all picked up en route. In some ways, it is a very busy tale, packing an array of events unfolding at a brisk pace. The reader has to wade through a tangled web woven around a pivotal enigma.

The journey takes place mostly in three major cities – Aukatabad, the power capital; Anantanagar, the city of ideas, modelled after Kolkata; and Bhaskarnagar, the desert city, a mix of Jaipur and Jodhpur. In the process, the novel touches upon myriad aspects of postmodern existence – like collective hyper-anxiety born out of limitless consumerism, and the possibility of drug-induced escapism as a therapeutic solution; climate disasters like untimely desert rain and flash floods; the unhinged appetite of the Capital; the contemporary postcolonial citizen embroiled between an asymmetric rise of modernity and the burden of tradition; the oxymoronic symbiosis of occult and modern science.

A host of interesting characters, which include a narcissistic pharmaceutical baron, a Bengali middle-class local journalist torn between conscience and desire, a professional henchman looking after flower shops, a mystery lady with a mission in hand, a retired handicapped sailor who never gives up, and a band of timeless overseers with their emissaries of death, act out the novel. Through their eyes, we see a world troubled with conspiracy, crime, passion, and obscene desire. We get a peep at the underbelly of the powerful cities. We make a foray into the conspiring world of pharma giants and corporate megalomania. We keep wondering about a mysterious invisible glare keeping tabs on events as the plot thickens with every turn of the page.

A stylish query of existentialism

The author does a good job of keeping the excitement and mystery alive till the near end. This is laudable, considering the storyline is layered and nonlinear with doses of the surreal, allegory, and fantastical intricately knit into a racy mystery thriller. At times one is reminded of GK Chesterton’s iconic The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, though Chaudhuri’s is a modern saga blending climate fiction with a sardonic take on city-bred consumerism. The structure of the novel is definitely postmodern where the reader is expected to go beyond the narrative and look past the banal quest of “what happens next”. To the author’s credit, the structural complexity of the novel does not act as an impediment to the unravelling of the mystery which is at the heart of the thriller. The plot building is clever and the author does not lose his way as a storyteller in his effort to weave the existential queries.

Chaudhuri writes in an engaging style. Places, people and ideas all come alive in this novel through poignant prose. For instance, “…Kid’s prom torn into shreds, flying into the lily pond. Big splash. More cries, followed by an abrupt silence. Silence of quiet death. La petite mort, hushed orgasmic ends.” The “manic city” of Aukatabad presents itself to the reader in passages like these. And when we come across descriptions like “the poor of Anantanagar, who had set up small shops everywhere… creep and crawl all over, overflowing into the shopping malls…”, we capture the heart of a city like Anantanagar aka Kolkata where eternity meets modernity.

Some of the dystopian imagery is also poetic. For example, when the author describes the idiosyncratic desert rain at Bhaskarnagar. “…Cloudbursts. Torrential downpours in the desert further west. The erratic weather which helps no one. The land unable to quench its thirst because a deluge like a drought, is nobody’s friend…” Or take another passage when encountering a desert storm. “Then suddenly the rain stops one evening, and there is a ferocious dust storm – like a break in their story to allow one singular actor, like a portent, to appear. The aandhi rampages through Bhaskarnagar…”

Ironically, these passages may be ignored in the haste to follow the storyline. In fact, they add artistic value and are an integral part of the greater goal of this novel. An important piece of artillery in the author’s armoury is humour. The novel is laced with dark humour born of Kafkaesque absurdity. As Milan Kundera noted in Testaments Betrayed, humour is an essential part of the modern novel. Not jesting, not horseplay or tomfoolery, but humour. Non-serious, yet non-trivial. The apparent nonchalance that surrounds the absolute absurdity in the novel, as if the absurd is a part of our quotidian experience, embodies this humour. Our postmodern existence is painted as a dark comedy, where we obliviously chase our doom with gaiety and pomp.

Even though the novel can be read as a crime thriller, its canvas is much bigger than the central plot. Climate is a major character, as are the places the characters visit. For anyone who loves fiction and cares about the planet, this novel is a fine way to meet both these needs.

Kousik Guhathakurta is a professor of Finance and Accounting at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore.

Spellcasters, Rajat Chaudhuri, Olive Turtle/Niyogi Books.