A bureaucrat's tale

Although they are fixed into the Steel Frame, Indian bureaucrats have burst out into creative fiction scene since the days of S K Chettur of the Indian Civil Service, whose The Cobras of Dhermashevi is a classic of Indian writing in English.

Bhaskar Ghose is a recent entrant and an adroit propeller of fiction from the nuggets of reality picked up during his 36 years in the Indian Administrative Service. Stiff-collared bureaucracy holding Bhaskar’s hands with stage-experience is a welcome combination. Naturally, one sways as if watching a subtle street play enacted in print.

The shivery haziness of the novel is indicated in the very first sentence. “After his second drink, Arunava Varman became more expansive and mellow.” Bhaskar confesses that his other name is Arunav, and Varma, his community name. Even without his admitting to this, the reader can easily guess the autobiographical strands in this attractive fable. Like the ageing Tapan marrying the young South Indian girl, for instance.

Lovers of theatre will enjoy the snippets about what happens behind the curtain, of how the prompter has to drown the actor Vivek’s voice and yet the audience enjoys the “patchwork arrangement”. Cheerleaders of Indian poetry in English will watch Arunava’s attempts fusing actors Jaishree and Rani Roopmati with considerable interest.

Is Arunava a compulsive liar, a seedy prankster, or a mole? He does seem to have a subterranean life, invisible to the narrator Tapan who takes his time getting into the truth of Arunava’s being. It is twilight territory when he meets Arunava’s parents. Arunava had told him they were dead! The liar’s queer reason comes later. Who wants an ordinary, good father?

“I suppose I wanted someone who may not have brought with him the stupor of contentment and the sameness that he did, someone who would have stood out a little, and I went into a realm of fantasy. What the hell — I’d taken him so much for granted that using him as a fictionalised character seemed to come naturally.”

Later, we learn that this too is a lie. On our behalf, Bhaskar asks questions and gets no answers. But we couldn’t care less, as the slippery field has a few story-lets, which are delectably readable. The dusky Ruksana-Farid romance naturally reminds the reader of Madhumati, including Vyjayantimala getting down from the train in her modern garb re-enacted in Jaishree.

Not all the stories are focused upon The Teller of Tales. Bhaskar is also a ‘Teller of Bureaucratic Memories’. Like the nominations that our artistes clamour for and how they salaam the pinch-beck potentates for getting included in this or that delegation. If the senior proposes and the junior rejects the proposals, woe unto the latter.

“It had started when he had made a few requests that people be accommodated in the general council of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), and in a few of the delegations being sent abroad. They were absolutely mediocre as artistes, and I had told him, as politely as I could, that I would find it difficult to justify their inclusion in both the SNA and the delegations. He nodded and never mentioned the matter again, but from then on a distant air became more and more evident.”

An insider’s view is always welcome. Especially, when hints are scattered about the ministers in the Central Cabinet and the leopard’s growl that is heard often: Minister saab ne woh file mangi hai! The escape mechanism is always “going on leave”! That is a good one.

Between the hard and mundane facts about the working of the Indian Administrative Service (with Tapan acting as a seagreen, incorruptible rarity) and Arunava’s yarn-spinning, we have no lackluster pages in the novel. Finally, we slip into Sucharita’s death … Sucharita who? Around this time, the novel grows flabby. The reader has to blunder along to know more about her suicide and Arunava’s early days, his idealist school and its failure, thanks to local thuggery, and his recorded message to Tapan, an explanatory tale.

This sentimental turn is an artistic goof-up. Having taken care of tying up the knots of the Arunava story, Bhaskar turns to Tapan. Nandini Swaminathan comes into his home and makes him take her. Aha, we have a good bit of what has been missing till now in the fictional concoction, a replay of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The novelist seems determined to show Nandini in a grey light. An affair here, an affair there (with Arunav) and uneasy movements everywhere like tumbrels trundling away. The Teller of Tales ends with a mushy close-up of Tapan scattering Arunav’s ashes in the flowing Ganga, leaving the gift of a curate’s egg for contemporary Indian fiction in English.

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