Book review

It’s not easy to get a political thriller right. This novel does it

Arnab Ray’s ‘Sultan of Delhi: Ascension’ shakes up the genre effectively.

There is an affecting little moment early in the new thriller Sultan of Delhi: Ascension, where the protagonist Arjun Bhatia, a gun-runner, is visiting the widow of a man he recently murdered – a very close friend named Bangali, who had tried to betray him. Having done what he felt he had to do, yet still riven by regret, loss and a sense of responsibility, Arjun sees a framed photo of himself and Bangali on a wall.

“There he was, Bangali, his handsome, rugged face drawn into a movie-star smile, his muscular arm thrown casually over Arjun’s shoulder. Arjun looked plain and ordinary next to him, like the hero’s best friend who dies in the first reel […] a face in the crowd, one among many.”

The “ordinary”, unremarkable man in the photo is very much the hero of this novel, though, destined to survive and rise in the world in ways that more obvious hero-types might not. This theme harks back to Arjun’s early life. As the youngest child of a moneyed Hindu family in pre-Partition Lahore, he is shorter, weaker, more fragile than his two brothers; but he is the one who makes it through the hellfire of Partition violence (and though the book doesn’t underline this point, the reason he survives is because he was in hospital, recovering from a high fever, when the riots claim his family and house). Moving to India with his traumatised father, having to rebuild their life from scratch, he does menial jobs and is working as a car mechanic when he gets the offer that changes his life.

These episodes – set in the 1940s, the 50s and the 60s – come to us mainly as flashback-detours, skillfully woven through the main narrative. Much of the meat of the book is set in the 1970s, when Arjun begins a passionate relationship – one that moves from being purely transactional to something involving deep emotion and a sense of welcome escape – with Bangali’s widow Nayantara. Then, his ambition vaulting ever higher, he begins to sow the seeds of a career as a power-broker in Delhi, eventually taking an enormous calculated risk that will see him becoming an important and feared puppet-master.

The anti-hero

This novel is many things. It is a Delhi book, a political thriller, a comment on the legacy of violence stemming from the events of 1947, an unusual, often moving love story. And – this is where it worked best for me – it is a portrait of a difficult-to-read anti-hero.

A child of fate as well as someone who creates an image for himself, Arjun can be incredibly sadistic one minute – as in an episode where he prolongs the death of a man who is being forced to commit suicide – and show largesse and sensitivity in the very next scene. He makes an impressive-sounding statement about how nothing he does is ever personal, it’s all business, and you start to believe him because he seems so detached and matter-of-fact – but then he contradicts himself a few seconds later, and when asked, deadpans “I lied.”

For much of the narrative he appears cocksure, priding himself on always being a step ahead of enemies and friends, and in this context it is worth considering his ambivalent relationship with cinema. The book has many pop-cultural references. When Arjun recalls his first meeting with the man who employs him outside the law, Jagan Seth, he decides it must have been post-1955, because Shree 420 had released. (Given that Arjun is working in a garage at the time, the author might have been tempted to throw in a Chalti ka Naam Gaadi reference – especially since Jagan Seth is likened to the suave villain KN Singh, who was in that film, and also since Arjun is a big fan of Kishore Kumar’s singing. But perhaps it’s for the best that the reader doesn’t picture Arjun as Kumar the madcap comedian!) A Gunga Jumna screening is similarly used as a marker for another important incident in his life. He and Nayantara get to know each other by discussing Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna and Purab aur Paschim. There is an allusion to Sholay as that new film “whose name I can’t remember now”, where the villain tells the heroine that the hero will stay alive as long as her feet keep moving.

But though Arjun watches many movies, unlike the characters in other underworld novels such as Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, his personality and actions aren’t moulded by cinema: like the chief villain, Ramadhin Singh, in Gangs of Wasseypur, he believes that behaving “too filmi” can lead you to trouble. And yet, as he no doubt has reason to reflect, the arc of his own life is often what we might think of as “filmi”.


Fast forward

A fast-paced genre novel, where we gradually learn things about the characters through their conversations, as opposed to through elaborate descriptive passages, can sink or soar with its dialogue scenes, and Ray definitely has an ear for those. This is especially true of the coarser exchanges, whether it is the banter between Bangaali and Arjun, or a cop named Chuha giving important life lessons to pampered youngsters: “You want revenge. You could have just hired me to rough that haraami up, but no, you guys want to be heroes. After all, thoda danger chahiye na lund ko khada karne ke liye? I understand that […] But you three don’t really want to die, do you? And that’s why I am here, to make sure you have the same number of holes in your body going in and getting out.” Repeatedly, we are reminded that the language of politicians and businessmen in stressful situations is not very different from that of small-time thugs.

If I had to fault Sultan of Delhi, I’d say that the narrative becomes a little too rushed in the third section, after the book leaps forward to 1993 where Arjun, now in his late fifties, must reassess his place in a changing world. For at least part of this section, since a number of new characters – including his three grown-up children – have to be introduced, with small pen-portraits of each, the focus moves away from the compelling protagonist.

When it does move back, we see yet another side of Arjun. The anti-hero who always seized the moment has become a weary old man, with much of the old fire intact when it is needed, but also bemused by the ways of a generation that didn’t have to struggle the way he did. He gets tired and irritable, is sometimes unsure. In his youth he had a clear preference for Kishore Kumar over Mohammed Rafi; but now, disoriented by the loudness of modern party music, he grumbles: “There is no melody, no peace in this, not like Rafi… and even Kishore.” He even has something resembling a ghost of Banquo moment, decades after the murder of his friend.

Ray has tied us closely to Arjun’s consciousness for most of the book, and so, when we move to the next generation – meeting his two sons, the brutish, unlikable Sudheer and the lean, quiet Mohan, who might be even more dangerous in the long run – it is easy to see them as rude upstarts. But is it really that simple? It was around this point that I found myself thinking most about The Godfather.

The legacy

Mario Puzo’s novel, and even more so, Francis Ford Coppola’s films, have cast a long shadow over any popular work about the rise and decline of a family that lives outside the law, and Sultan of Delhi contains little hat-tips to the Corleone family (while also drawing on what we think we know of big-business Indian families such as the Ambanis). Depending on your vantage point, Arjun can be seen as a version of Vito Corleone, or a version of his son Michael, or an amalgam of both. And the third section of Ray’s book begins with a scene comparable to the opening of Puzo’s: Arjun, at his son Sudheer’s engagement ceremony, is politely dealing with people making demands on him.

But there are also important subsidiary themes built around generational conflict. Reading Puzo’s novel and watching the first Godfather film, it is easy to buy into a rose-tinted view of Vito being both self-made and having a strong honour code that is lost in the next generation. However, when you watch The Godfather Part II – which moves in two time zones, intercutting Michael’s rise as a don with the story of the young Vito’s ascent decades earlier – it gets more complicated. Through chilling scenes such as the one where the young Vito, after committing his first murder, returns to his family and takes the infant Michael’s tiny hands into his own, symbolically passing on a homicidal legacy to his child, it becomes easier to see the ways in which the sins of the father are visited on his sons.

This sense of the past constantly informing, pursuing and corrupting the present runs through Sultan of Delhi too – so that even when you reach the end, set in a world of drug dens, fast cars, decadent parties and “thump-thump-thump music”, you don’t lose sight of the little boy at the railway station during the 1947 riots, waiting for a train that could either become a coffin or take him across the border to a future of multiple possibilities.

Sultan of Delhi: Ascension, Arnab Ray, Hachette India.

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