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Somnath Batabyal

HarperCollins

Pages: 286 Rs. 350

Faster than a speeding bullet in India’s meanest megapolis

Somnath Batabyal’s debut novel is a thrill-a-minute ride through Delhi, that makes neat detours into social commentary, economics and philosophy, writes Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta  8th Jun 2013

Somnath Batabyal (center) with Vikram Seth (right) and Arunava Sinha (left)

omnath Batabyal's first novel races faster than the Delhi Metro across the National Capital Region. It delves into the murky world of unscrupulous journalists, corrupt cops, gangsters and their girls, not to mention sundry other characters from the underbelly of Indian society. Despite its obsessive focus on all that is ugly in arguably the worst place in the whole of India; namely, the sprawling agglomeration that includes the country's political and crime capital, the novel on occasions rises above the mundane to offer an insightful look into the chaos, anarchy and deep iniquities that lie not so deep beneath the surface of a megapolis that has grown to become India's — and one of the world's — biggest urban areas.

For a city that boasts of one of the longest histories of its kind, Delhi is paradoxically unmindful of its colourful and chequered past. Batabyal's principal protagonist Abhishek Dutta too is typically one of those zillion immigrants who come from the hinterland to the capital to seek quick fame and fortune. He finds both rather expeditiously thanks to a combination of perseverance, grit and large doses of good luck. Fortune does indeed favour the brave and the hard-working, at least in this case, as the rookie reporter rises rapidly up the non-hierarchical echelons of the mass media, from the printed pages of the Express to the shining glass boxes (literally and metaphorically) of the News Today television channel, from the grimy confines of the cigarette-smoke-filled Press Club of India to the artificial-smoke-filled dance floors of discotheques located in the innards of many-starred hotels.

The author uses cinematic techniques — jump-cuts and rapid sequences in fast-forward mode — in his novel, as the principal players move seamlessly from the corridors of power in Lutyen's Bungalow Zone to the hovels of the underprivileged in Yamuna Pushta. At one level, the main characters appear stereotypical: the good cop and the bad "Dirty Harry", the sincere scribe and the vainglorious TV anchor, the gangster in exile and his promiscuous moll, the victims of circumstance and those who have lived off the fat of the land and the reputations of their well-connected parents. Still, Batabyal's characters seem all-too-real, individuals who identities have been scarcely concealed.

The frenetic exchanges of the surreptitious kind peppered literally with expletives undeleted, the author seeks to interject small titbits of contemporary politics, sociology, economics and philosophy, not unduly worried that the serious sections could stall the fast flow of the main narrative. Batabyal has got away with mixing the sublime with the ridiculous.

Yes, the standard disclaimer is there. Any resemblance to any actual person, dead, alive or yet-to-be-born, is entirely coincidental. So help me God! The name of the "dreaded don", for instance, is Babloo Shankar and his female accomplice is Monika ("oh my darling") Mathur also known as Archana Pandey aka Madame X, believe it or not. In between, the frenetic exchanges of the surreptitious kind peppered literally with expletives undeleted, the author seeks to interject small titbits of contemporary politics, sociology, economics and philosophy, not unduly worried that the serious sections could stall the fast flow of the main narrative. Batabyal has got away with mixing the sublime with the ridiculous.

And, in case there are those who are wondering how much of the novel is autobiographical, it should be stated right up front that the author worked for a decade in journalism in Delhi — he was a colleague of this reviewer — "covering crime and criminality, hobnobbing with politicians and policemen, before entering the quieter world of Western academia". He has written a work of non-fiction on a portion of the Rupert Murdoch-controlled STAR group's operations in India and edited a volume entitled Indian Mass Media and the Politics of Change. He currently teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

As Abhishek's beginner's luck seems to go on forever, he incurs the wrath of envious fellow tribals. A journalist's worst enemies, he learns quickly, as those who failed to get the scoop he did and are unwilling to accept their indolence and worse, their corrupt and venal ways. As he ventures forth into the "dog-eat-dog world of crime and politics", he realises that man's best friend is actually much-maligned. No canines can never bite or gobble other canines the way human beings can and often do. As in politics, so too in crime and journalism, there are indeed no permanent friends or enemies, only ephemeral acquaintances like the "sources" whose brittle egos can be trampled upon after they have ceased to be utilitarian.

s the blurb on the back-cover aptly summarises: "With a plot (to be more accurate, that word should be in the plural) that twists and turns like the inner lanes of the city, Somnath Batabyal's debut novel takes you into the dark underbelly of India, where common lives are mere pawns in deadly power games and where corruption lies at the very core." With corruption in cricket hogging headlines in recent weeks, the book has a cannily contemporaneous feel which is probably coincidental.

Amir Akhtar, Abhishek's first mentor, who occupies considerable prominence in the novel, the chief reporter of the daily and who failed to adequately ad-lib his way on to the idiot box, is arguably the most nuanced character in the motley cast. He is not only sketched with detail and empathy, his deep dark secret is revealed only at the very end to shock the reader. No, Somnath, one is not going to reveal the novel's conclusion to potential readers.

At the end of the story, the good tries hard to triumph over evil, almost succeeds but then flops miserably. Writer William Dalrymple audaciously argues that the novel "looks likely" to do for Delhi what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles. Those addicted to news about Bollywood cinema, its celebrities, criminals and cricketers, will surely find Batabyal's book rather riveting. As for the other sorts who are more serious, it's definitely still worth more than a rapid read.

The reviewer is an independent journalist and educator.

 
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