In a passage from the novel that Upamanyu Chatterjee is best known for, the eponymous August goes through a book handed to him by a sub-divisional magistrate. It’s a copy of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, with underlined passages and comments in red ballpoint pen in the margins. “I thought I should put down what I feel strongly about so that other readers at least have a choice of opinion,” says the bureaucrat.
Much of Chatterjee’s own work, and especially the short stories collected in The Assassination of Indira Gandhi – most of which have appeared previously in publications from Granta to Open Magazine – can be seen in this way: a writing against the grain, a view of things that’s askew. The depredations of the past, both recent and remote, are a fertile ground for such an approach, and fittingly, many stories here exist in the interstices of historical narratives.
A dive into the past
Take “History Lesson”, the very first one, which could well have been an apt title for the entire collection. This deals with the 17th century mission of English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe to the court of emperor Jahangir. In 10 episodes, we follow the hapless envoy in his efforts to call upon the Conqueror of the World, who has “barely heard of the country that the ambassador represents – it is some sort of island far, far away – but he is unfailingly courteous even with the inconsequential.” Delays, drama and dynastic hubris ensue.
The subsequent clash of cultures and languages are dealt with in a probing, Sanjay Subrahmanyam-esque manner, enlivened with trademark drollery to bring out “diplomacy’s complex designs and history’s intricate lessons”.
“Sailing to Constantinople” also probes the past, set on board a trading vessel setting off from Goa in 1807. This is almost Borgesian, if not in style then in its creation of imagined and real worlds, with its account of mistaken journeys and unsought for endings that exist at a tangent to the tale of the Ancient Mariner. In another story, “Robertus Heimric, Welcome Back”, we’re taken to medieval Germany for an unusual retelling of the Pied Piper’s tale, this time largely from the point of view of one of the boys who survived and returns home to Hamelin years later.
Not all of the stories are set in earlier centuries. Notable incidents from the last few decades are also given the Chatterjee treatment, in which deep feelings and incisive opinions are conveyed through the medium of characters flippantly caught up in their day-to-day lives.
“Three Seven Seven and the Blue Gay Gene” is an intricate tale dwelling on the convolutions of Section 377 and its effects on parents of a gay teen, which features a cameo by none other than Lord Macaulay. Here, the drollery veers towards the macabre. Similarly, in “Sparrows”, Jamun – a recurring character – muses on the ways of birds and the means of their vanishing, with Ronald Ross being dredged up for an experiment or two. Another attempt to engage with inequity is “Can’t Take This Shit Anymore”, on the lives of manual scavengers and those who sympathise or not with them.
Other stories take as material yet other episodes that have branded themselves upon the national psyche. In the title story, a young Sikh who’s jaundiced in more ways than one retreats to his parents’ house in Mussoorie where he hears of and tries to deal with the fallout of the Prime Minister’s killing: “To Bunny in his delirious state, it seemed that the world’s chaos merely mirrored his own.” In “Girl”, a teacher meets a former classmate of Aarushi Talwar and together they dredge their memories of her brutal killing. It’s a story that perhaps relies too much on a recounting of events to be entirely successful.
Style above all
In “Othello Sucks”, one of the more readable stories, a father muses on the suitability of Shakespeare being taught to his daughter and other students of her school. (“This being at some moments a piece of non-fiction, at others a radio play and at yet others a comic strip in prose”: not a bad way of describing some of the others in this collection as well.) In a series of bravura cultural comparisons, the Moor’s blackness is compared with the Billy Bunter series’s Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, as well as Enid Blyton’s golliwogs, among others. This is Chatterjee in his element, an apparent light-heartedness disguising weightier points.
Finally, those who yearn for more of a certain Agastya Sen, IAS officer, will find him making an appearance in “The Killings in Madna”, which, though entirely readable, does come across as an outtake from Chatterjee’s debut novel.
Many of these stories pivot on varying viewpoints in an almost anarchic manner. Which means that characters and plot do on occasions take a back seat. What we’re left with is the questioning intelligence and the style – satirical, slantwise, sardonic – especially manifested in external dialogue and inner speech. None of which are bad reasons to dip into this volume and await the next.
The Assassination of Indira Gandhi: The Collected Stories of Upamanyu Chatterjee: Volume One, Speaking Tiger.