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Inheritance of discord

Lalitha Subramanian, Sep 16, 2012 : 18:28 IST
The book of answers
C Y Gopinath
Harper Collins
2012, pp 337
499

Is our corrupt, demented world, our country, our kalyug, awaiting salvation from a book of solutions, a magic wand?

Journalist-author C Y Gopinath toys with this idea in his satirical novel The Book of Answers, a book I read recently, aptly enough, on the eve of Free India’s 65th Independence Day. We live in an India that is struggling to keep its freedom, progress and unity intact. As we lurch to an unstable future, now more than ever, we seek a saviour.

The tale, set in India 2015, recounts the travails of an everyman Indian, the Bengali-Keralite-Mumbaikar Patros Patronobis, unwilling recipient of a surprise gift passed on from a prescient and blind ancestor, late Kitapa of Kerala. As the accompanying letters make clear, the locked metal-encased tome holds possible solutions to the world’s problems — and the key is in Kerala.

Patros is in a dilemma. He is happy enough to be an upright citizen, even a feminist — but not a messiah — which is exactly the role his family and friends wish for him. The people around him — Rose, his activist-partner-lover, Tippy, his adopted teenage son (an intriguing and enchanting character used well as tool for the tale), Arindam, the sharp
college mate, the assorted group of homeopath acquaintances — all try and prod Patros into doing the right thing, that is, to find the key, and assume responsibility.

Patros quietly sells the book to a junk dealer — and thinks his problems are over, that he can get on with his uneventful life. But things are not so easy. Intriguingly, the blogosphere, the media and eerily enough, the government — all become aware of and interested in the fate of the book.

And suddenly, a few months down the line, the book reappears — in the hot hands of all people, the new godman in town, the new TV-star baba, His Holiness Shri Shri Anand Mahasagar, the Infinite Ocean of Joy. “He leeched into public consciousness like a growing wine stain.”

The TV image of this jolly laughing seer is not really dangerous, but Patros soon realises that this ‘Happyji’ influence extends from attention-deficit impatient youth to big guns in the government; he is, in fact, advisor to the wily politician Ishwar Prasad, a man with his own agenda. Elections are due soon, power and votes are to be gained, and at hand is a newly minted swami with his supposed book of solutions.

Aided by his equally conniving cohorts within the government — chauvinistic cops, amoral assistants and corrupt bureaucrats — Prasad unleashes a slew of loony legislations on a confused public.

It is farce of a high order as chaos and madness reign — education is simplified as cheating/googling one’s way through exams becomes the norm; a Happiness Tax is imposed on sexual activity within and without marriage (a fictional situation recalling the very real problems India faces currently due to the antics of our morality brigades), there is even a Ministry of Regrets that apologises for the government’s continued mistakes. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the Grey Area facility, where, under the guise of treating Aids patients, inconvenient thinkers are rendered mild and harmless.

The story twists and turns through 337 pages, climaxing in Kerala where our
reluctant hero does what needs to be done; it then ends quite anti-climactically in Mumbai, the situation saved for the nonce.

Despite the length, occasional dips in pace, and what seems a couple of figure-typos, the book is worth one’s time. The language is vibrant, the imagery vivid — Tippy is described as “a well-built praying mantis with frizzy hair vaguely reminiscent of a shifty Will Smith.”
Laughter permeates the book; there is gentle mocking of regional accents; Shinde the cop coyly euphemises ‘koochoos’ for ‘sex’; adulteration is judged as value addition and an accused trader rewarded, not punished.

In essence, a personal predicament is turned into a national happening-cum-Orwellian warning. Good.

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