Unspooling yarn

Fairy Tales at Fifty
Fourth Estate
2015, pp 341
Rs 599

First up, a stray thought. If this were a film, it would be what is called a ‘horrex’ film, a horror plus sex admixture. Upamanyu Chatterjee approaches the heart of his story in a roundabout manner. He introduces a character whose relevance is clearly apparent but his link to Pashupati’s family less so. Because the aforementioned heart of the tale deals with the members of the powerful Pashupati’s family: his fey yet practical wife Manasa who has an entourage of bats; his son and heir Nirip who has just turned 50 but is determined to continue leading an indolent, dissolute life; Nirip’s mannish sister Kamagni who has gained notoriety as the violent ‘Magnum’; Pashupati’s one-time chief keep, the one-eyed Sulekha who now holds an undefined but important place in the household; Manasa’s tall and striking sister Shivani; Shivani’s lover Jayadev.

But wait. The book opens with Jayadev telling his son the tale of Angulimala for the nth time; that’s how it is because the boy Jhabua is fascinated by the story of the killer who hung the severed digits of his victims in a gory chain around his neck. Even before Jhabua grows to the status of adult, he takes on the name Anguli... and oh yes, he turns into a serial killer. A killer who kills 16 in 36 years and finds the world a friendly place. 
So the reader tells herself. This is the tale of Angulimala retold. Except, it’s not. This Jhabua/Anguli is more of a feint. And this is an old-fashioned fable about a modern family, its rise, fall and further slide into all sorts of hell. Pashupati and Co lead absolutely debauched lives and each one’s actions make a powerful impact on the other’s life.

This family fable is told with macabre, scatological humour, wrapped in a thin veil of world-weary cynicism, all rather typical of the author. The story is always hovering at the abyss of the bizarre and occasionally dips waist-deep into that well. The reader will grin, will chortle, will give a sharp crack of laughter even as she sees that not everything being related is a fable: these are people who may well be walking among us, truly venal human beings. Pashupati and his brood are a weird lot, but all of them are acting out on understandable human impulses. Understandable in a twisted way, but understandable for all that. It’s the old mix of greed, lust, envy and murderous rage that drives them.
The characters are all uniformly written about in detail. Consider Jayadev’s introduction to the reader: He was an intrinsically magnanimous man perhaps because he had never had anything material to share, and he was cultured despite his illiteracy. His wanderings had given him a sense of geography, and the diversity of the world had given latitude to his thought. He knew his strengths and weaknesses. Women were his weakness, and his strength, his way with them. Beyond that, he didn’t much care, the world was welcome to its atrocities.

Anguli, the killer, matures, ripens towards becoming rotten. Pashupati who resembled a short ferocious demon with a charming, disarming smile is a purveyor of trading in human skulls and bones (not a bit of irony there, I promise you) of cadavers stolen from morgues, graves and funeral pyres, and he views women less as individuals and more as a species. And when Nirip meets Anguli, what else can follow but death and destruction?
(Weird factoid number 7: all the women in this book have moustaches of varying luxuriance.)

There is no hurrying the pace, all will be and is revealed in due time. The reader just needs to stick to the story. I found the third quarter of the narrative becoming a tad too clever for itself, but Chatterjee redeems himself and the story by the inexorable, inevitable end.

This is a compelling chronicle. And of course there is a moral. But Chatterjee offers a peculiar redemption: the reader can either accept the moral or reject it outright.

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