Upamanyu Chatterjee’s most recent book, The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, is a sharp departure from his previous work – in the best ways. His earlier predilection for excess has been pared down into something almost unrecognisable: a tautly told tale which prizes control rather than the lack of restraint, its humour confident enough to be buried below the surface instead of being perpetually paraded for laughs. At the age of 59, exactly thirty years after the publication of his first (and best-known) novel, Chatterjee might finally have stopped needing to shock.

His debut, English, August (1988) was an India book that got off on the idea of not being one. Its bored, horny young IAS officer protagonist Agastya Sen, having been forced out of his tiny Westernised urban pond into the terrifyingly unfamiliar ocean that is the Rest Of India, responds with deliberate flippancy to everything the respectable middle class world would have him take seriously. Sample dialogue: “I’d much rather act in a porn film than be a bureaucrat. But I suppose one has to live”.

Inside Agastya’s brain, everything is either sexual or scatological. So his cook’s surprise at being asked to bring milk is “as though Agastya asked for his wife’s cunt”; when asked what his name means by the District Collector, he wants to say it is Sanskrit for “one who shits only one turd every morning”, and so on. Several of Chatterjee’s later books, like The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), and Weight Loss: A Comedy of Sexual and Spiritual Degradation (2006), continued to cultivate this quality of deliberate affront to decorum, and circle around the world of Indian bureaucracy.

The father of principles

With The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian, Chatterjee returns – again – to the figure of the city-bred Indian bureaucrat posted in a remote small town. Only this time, the protagonist is not Agastya Sen but his father Madhusudan Sen, ICS. The senior Mr Sen first appeared in English, August, writing serious advice-filled letters to his dissolute, incorrigibly cynical son. In Non-Vegetarian, we meet him at at an earlier stage of his life: he is the newly appointed Sub Divisional Magistrate of Batia, in the period just after independence.

He leads the recognisably dull life of the bureaucrat in a provincial posting, surrounded by punkhahs, peons and other eavesdropping functionaries. His daily stimulation, such as it is, consists of the walk back from the magistrate’s court to his Civil Lines bungalow, followed by a glass of Cutty Sark whiskey and a single Gold Flake cigarette. Unlike his future son, however, Madhusudan Sen is the opposite of dissolute, cynical, or confused.

Chatterjee’s crisp telling cannot be accused of something so florid as nostalgia – and yet there is a lingering sense here of a finer, uncorrupted past. At this previous point in the history of the nation-state, Chatterjee seems to suggest, the very same conditions that produced an Agastya could (and did) produce the principled pillar of bureaucracy, upright and correct.

The meating point

But Sen does have desires that he is unafraid to voice. Soon after his arrival in Batia, when he learns that his official residence on Temple Road is part of an unofficial no-meat zone because of its geographical proximity to the town’s resident vegetarian deity, he devises a complex arrangement to get himself a non-veg meal every evening.

If Madhusudan Sen is “both cautious and intelligent”, a highly educated man with a commitment to justice, a servant of the people, the other figure who occupies centre-stage in this 124-page novella might be seen as his social, intellectual and moral opposite. Sadly, Basant Kumar Bal, servant to the six-member Dalvi family, is not someone whose interiority we learn much about. At one point in the book, we are told that Bal “did not wonder what was going on in the world beyond [the walls], whether anyone remembered him. He was not that kind of human being.”

Chatterjee does allow Bal one monologue that might gain him our understanding, if not our empathy – and that understanding is routed through Madhusudan Sen’s. Fittingly, it is about the eating of meat. “They always ate well,” says Bal of his late employers. “They had non-vegetarian almost every day, saab, goat or chicken or fish or egg. They ate like rakshasas themselves and always left only two pieces of meat in the pot, one each for the sister-in-law and her daughter.”

The desire for meat is all the sahib has in common with the servant, the judge with the accused. It is a delicious premise, and one that Chatterjee manages to manoeuvre perfectly towards a wicked, satisfying conclusion. Like a well-made mutton curry, this is a book whose pleasures are dependent on the attention you give it. Don’t eat while you read.

The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger.