Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes

The goat, the sofa and mr swami

R Chandrashekhar
2010, pp 306,
Rs. 250

He also knows that a prime minister needs to be a leader only occasionally, and that he’s a politician most of the time. And that most people in public service have that one lever that, when pushed, can make them do anything for you.

These characterisations may appear to be too broad, but then, R Chandrasekar never intends to take his book into the depths of Indian government and its players.

The story pegs each character to a couple of lines of descriptions and a stereotypical name (“The chief minister of Kerala Mr Baby Jesus expressed regret that traditional Keralite dishes like avial, idiappam, and karimeen pozhichattu had been excluded”). The only person we learn more about is Swami, the narrator. But even in this case, Swami emerges fully formed, a 40-something Gucci-loafer-loving IAS officer with years of political experience behind him.

What the book focuses on are the hilarious situations that politics throw up, that thankfully remain hidden from the public eye, and the various stratagems that bureaucrats must come up with to save the day. Chandrasekar has put in quite a bit of effort reading through newspapers and wondering what must be going on behind the scenes.

The template of the book reminds one of Yes, Prime Minister (or Ji, Mantriji if you prefer): a rather dull prime minister with quirks, and a savvy IAS officer assisting him through day-to-day political shenanigans.

The book is divided into chapters dealing with individual ‘situations’, leading to a ‘season finale’ dealing with the Pakistani prime minister’s visit.

Where it differs is that the narrator of the book is the (comparatively) smart one of the pair — the PA, and so we hear first-hand about how each problem is solved, along with a lot of preening about the steel frame of the IAS and the total mess that politicians make of things. Thus, one layer of the fun of Yes, Prime Minister, viz. the clueless, well-meaning narrator trying to understand what is going on, is missing. Here the prime minister is a self-centred politician who gets no sympathy from us.

The ‘situations’ that Swami solves range from arranging for a red carpet for the Pakistani delegation, to persuading an incompetent cricketer to play a match (so that India can lose). Most of these situations are genuinely funny. You start off thinking the whole thing is preposterous, but then have to pause to wonder how close to truth they really are.

The quick-and-final solution to each and every issue, though, makes you feel like it was too easy. There are bound to be more messy issues to deal with in real life than those described in the book. In the Bollywood-like wrapping up of situations, Mr Swami feels more like Jaspal Bhatti’s Flop Show than Yes, Prime Minister.

The book is a good quick read. Chandrasekar’s writing is smooth and flows well, and he pulls no punches when making fun of the political system. He’s picked up topics that could be out of today’s newspaper, and skewered every popular sacred cow: Fasts-unto-death, freedom fighters, the National Museum, Padma Bhushans, and literally, sacred cows.

One hopes to see more of Mr Swami stuck in tougher situations.

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