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Jugal Mody

HarperCollins India

Pages: 224 Rs. 160

Stoners and zombies lock horns in a flat-out pulp romp

Jugal Mody’s prose may not be from the quote-unquote literary stable, but his novel is still a very enjoyable read which celebrates and parodies the cannabis subculture, says Aditya Mani Jha

ADITYA MANI JHA  19th Aug 2012

Jugal Mody

iven that the cannabis plant and its principal products (ganja, charas and bhaang) aren't exactly alien to the Indian subcontinent, it's surprising that there hasn't really been an Indian book, which has focused on the stoner subculture.

To be sure, there have been references in several other works – two landmark works of Indian literature stand at the head of the queue here. Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy introduces the pivotal character of Maan Kapoor in a superbly debauched bhaang scene. Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August opens with the protagonist Agastya 'August' Sen (a consummate stoner himself) receiving an immortal bit of slacker wisdom from his doper buddy Dhrubo ("I've a feeling, August, you're going to get hazaar f***ed in Madna"). Rahul Bhattacharya's magisterial non-fiction book Pundits From Pakistan had a memorable doping sequence, as did the recent A Free Man by Aman Sethi.

Two things are clear from the outset with Jugal Mody's Toke. One, that there's going to be a lot more smoke in this book then you've probably encountered over all of the aforementioned books. Two, Toke does not position itself alongside anything which you might come across in subcontinental literary fiction. Instead, it merrily romps along, an enjoyable pulp novel riding on the sheer infectious charm of its characters and their weed-fuelled misadventures. Yes, it has the occasional cringe-inducing metaphor and some of the nudge-wink routines are a wee bit past their sell-by date. But for the most part, Mody's debut novel is a bucket of laughs, footloose and utterly unpretentious.

Mody's protagonist Nikhil is your average underdog, a plodding pack rat stuck in a deadbeat job. His friends Danny and Aman are slackers par excellence, their days drifting by in a haze of cannabis smoke and pizzas. The fun begins when Nikhil finally throws in the towel at his office and decides to try out marijuana for the first time. Oh, and this is also about the time when he starts seeing visions of a metrosexualised Lord Vishnu, flanked by scantily-clad, booty-shaking girls. When the said god announces that the world is in a bit of a spot because of an impending zombie apocalypse, (the precautionary antidote to the virus is marijuana, by the way) you know that this is one book, which is not pulling its punches in any way.

Now, there are two principal ways in which a pulp novel can sustain itself – either by superior character development or by particularly inventive turns of plot. The former is all but absent in Toke. Nikhil might as well have been Five Point Someone's Hari, had the latter been blessed with a never-ending stash of potent hashish. His friends are not so much characters as dialogue bubbles in a comic book, vessels which Mody uses to both celebrate and parody stoner-speech patterns and slacker cultural tropes in general. In one sequence, a scientist is explaining the genesis of the brain-numbing maggots that are the cause of the zombie apocalypse. However, the stoner duo, Danny and Aman, hear only what they want to hear, neatly filtering the rest.

"She said, "We tried it on the cockroaches first. We figured that it could kill anything, if it killed the roaches." "Dude, she said 'roaches'." Danny sniggered."

There are two principal ways in which a pulp novel can sustain itself – either by superior character development or by particularly inventive turns of plot.

t is in plot development, therefore, that Mody really scores (pun unintended). The twists are, by and far, unpredictable and the supporting cast is delightfully quirky. Mody clearly relishes piling on new characters, using them as get-out-of-jail cards when the chapters are stretching a bit thin. What's more, he is acutely aware of his own authorial tendency, case in point being the scene where Nikhil, Danny and Aman meet a pair of katana-wielding Japanese twins for the first time.

"Thank you for reminding me that I could be dead, Aman." Aman passes the joint as all of us take in the proverbial last meal. Only a deus-ex-machina can save us now.

"Two sexy chinky girls!"

"No! Deus-ex-machina! It doesn't mean two sexy chinky girls!"

"Dude, I know what deus-ex means but look, two sexy chinky girls!"

"What?!" Two girls are standing right behind the gang of men. Danny and Aman have their mouths wide open and their eyes wider. One's wearing a schoolgirl outfit and the other's wearing a jacket and cotton pants and flat shoes, like a female detective in a cop movie."

Toke intermittently touches the comedic heights of zombie classics like the 2004 film Shaun of The Dead. Even when it slacks off sometimes, it manages to hold the reader's interest. And that is the sign of a natural storyteller, which on the evidence of this book, Mody certainly is.

I also liked Toke because I believe that we go to different books for different reasons. One may read Proust on Sunday and Tom Clancy on Monday, and find them both to be marvelously entertaining. Indeed, last week itself I found that an infinite Iron Maiden playlist went rather well with an umpteenth re-reading of Dickens' Bleak House. Hence, if you're just a wee bit stuck up in your literary choices, Mody's book might just be the thing to help you let your hair down. Of course, a toke or two wouldn't hurt either.

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