Casting a spell

Casting a spell

Casting a spell

Chetan Raj
Speaking Tiger
2015, pp 266, Rs 399

The Light of His Clan is the second novel of Chetan Raj Shrestha whose debut novel, The King’s Harvest, won Tata Literature Live award in 2013.

The book is set in Gangtok and revolves around a clan leader, Kuldeep Chandanth, who is supposed to be Kula-Deep, the light of his clan. This light, who is quite ironically addressed always as ‘ex-minister’ in the narrative, is an old man of 82, a widower and a father of three children. He is driven by the grand desire to unify all his clansmen and women into one tribe with his own researched name — ‘Chandanths’; but his efforts are undone by the manoeuvrings of his own followers.

The differences in the personal agendas of manipulative politicians assume theoretical proportions in this novel. The main political issue here is getting a particular community in Sikkim the status of Schedule Tribe. But there are well articulated differences within the clan about their nomenclature; one group of the clan, headed by the ex-minister, called Chandanth Action Society (CAS), puts forth a theory that the clan came from the shades of sandalwood trees grown in Chayalu valley and should be named ‘chandanth’; the other group, Chandith Heritage Action Preservation Society (CHAPS), headed by the ex-minister’s former follower and ex-general secretary of CAS, Mitradas Chandith, is vehement with their theory that the clan came from the silver mines of the same valley and thus the clan is to be named ‘chandith’; the third, headed by none other than the Hon’ble Chief Minister, takes a view of remaining with their present names, however illogical they appear — considering the needless paper work and the bureaucratic hurdles involved in the change, and also considering the strong irresolvable stances of the two groups. In order to establish the credentials of the clan, seminars, discussions and exhibition of art forms of the clan are organised on Balidan Diwas and Libhanaya Bhod.

The novel could be read as an allegory of caste-ridden Indian society. Each one wants to remain different and thus claim his/her superiority. “Saar, Caste is very important. A name without caste is like a body without hands”. (p.210) Ex-minister invariably enquires about the caste of every new person he meets. The tendency of recognising merit in others through caste is continued a little more delicately but more dangerously by his fellow politicians. Hence nepotism seeps into every social act. The novel is made more complex by the advent of rampant and ‘legalised’ corruption.

The corrupt practices in the government offices are described in the narrative as the most natural ways of official bonhomie. The ex-minister, despite his influence as the president of CAS, as a former minister and the father of a bureaucrat, has to pay a percentage from the sanctioned amount to get his bill passed. That he is able to manipulate the situation is yet another matter of changing the rules of the game. Nepotism and corruption form a deadly combination in the political establishment.

The decadence of Kuldeep Chandanth, which is the main crux of the novel, is both literal and metaphorical. It is characterised by love, hate, mistrust, jealousy, scheming, betrayal and selfishness. His inability to get his own bill passed easily in the bureaucratic quagmire, his isolation in the new dispensation, his own children rejecting his values, his contradictions, his weaknesses, his arrogance developed out of helplessness, mark his last two years.

Despite the generation gap that exists between him and his children, and despite the humiliation inflicted on him by his children and others, he helps them all in some way or the other. With none of his desires fulfilled, he kills himself after celebrating dasain, the family get-together, by consuming the forbidden mutton. Even the rich sandalwood, (which he kept professing throughout his life as the harbinger of ‘chandaan’ tradition), does not burn fully on his funeral pyre. This seems to be one of the vibrant symbols in the novel.

But for a few conspicuous typographical and factual errors in the book which need to be corrected in the next edition, the narrative is extremely readable with its rich humour and ironies. A strong comic sense pervades throughout the novel. Many of the characters are called by the designation they hold rather than their proper names — ex-minister, Minister for Village Roads, HCM, Vice President, Secretary, Joint Secretary, Sumathi AE, Pradeep SE, etc. The chapters are not numbered, but they are named with outlandish titles which contribute to the fascinating reading experience that the novel offers graciously.