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A middle-aged techie's droll life

The bewilderment has made way for fresh, dark and often wicked humour. The new economics has lost its terror for the class he draws his protagonists from. Shanbhag’s sharp writerly eye delights in the new comic and metaphoric opportunities he detects in its shimmering kaleidoscope.
Last Updated 07 October 2023, 23:07 IST

In the early 90s, when Vivek Shanbhag was making a name as a short story writer, he wrote Huli Savari (Riding the Tiger). It is an earnest, angsty story about how the forces of liberalisation and globalisation, ushered in just then by the P V Narasimha Rao government, were casting a dark shadow on our lives and our relationships.

The protagonist travels from Bengaluru to Mumbai for a workshop, where team-building games are lined up for employees from across the world. He is awed by the opulence of the hotel in Mumbai, and impressed by the cleverness of the business wizards conducting the sessions, but the games soon appear to him devious and deceitful. He concludes they are designed to kill a sense of community and promote corporate greed. Uche, a Nigerian visiting India for the training, is full of life, singing songs from his country and livening up the evening conversations. By the time the training is done, he is devastated by what he is expected to plan and execute in his continent. And in his shocked silence lies the author’s suggestion that global capital has successfully co-opted him into its games. The protagonist in Shanbhag’s latest book ‘Sakina’s Kiss’, has adapted to a world shaped by the seismic changes initiated in the 90s.

Faded angst

An engineer in Bengaluru with a steady job and consistently rising income, he regards himself as a regular sort. He watches rabble-rousing TV debates just to annoy his wife Viji and daughter Rekha, both of whom find them abhorrent. He hails from a village where his family owns land. He has made peace with a corporate-ruled world, adapted to a more affluent urban reality, and acquired all the material things people of the middle class aspire for. The angst of Shanbhag’s early 90s characters has faded away 30 years on.  Shanbhag shot to fame internationally with Ghachar Ghochar (2015), which The New York Times discovered in 2017 thanks to a smooth-flowing English translation by Srinath Perur. Hitherto familiar with Rushdie and other Indians writing in English, and totally oblivious to literature in Indian languages such as Kannada, NYT described it as a ‘great Indian novel’ despite its slim size. Its reviewer Parul Sehgal called it a “spiny, scary story of moral decline, crisply plotted and no thicker than my thumb.”

A middle-class family is on the verge of poverty when the breadwinner, who takes pride in his integrity and loyalty to his employer, is unceremoniously laid off as the old economy begins to collapse. It takes up trading in spices and sees a steady rise in its fortunes. The protagonist, wimpy and procrastinating, says at one point, “Money … swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.” Affluence becomes the cause of all the problems in his family. Like the NYT, The Guardian found his philosophical musings relatable and charming. 

Lure of self-help books

The title of Sakina’s Kiss is intriguing and obscure as it sets out to tell the story of a Kannada middle-class couple, Venkat and Viji, and their college-going daughter Rekha. It covers, among other things, the changing dynamics of the couple’s love life, and Viji’s growing suspicion of his nature. The relationship gives Shanbhag many opportunities to cast an ironic eye on the relationships of the newly affluent class in Bengaluru. The match between Venkat and Viji is arranged by their families but they go around thinking of it as an unmediated romantic courtship. During their honeymoon, they bond over their closet admiration for self-improvement books. Later, Viji suspects he is swayed by their pat, banal wisdom. When Rekha goes missing suddenly, they come face-to-face with the realities of a society in turbulence. The title eventually turns out to be one of the many sly and delicious jokes in the novel — it has more to do with dyslexia than any secret dalliance. Shanbhag’s tone, polished over the last three decades, is no longer jittery.

The bewilderment has made way for fresh, dark and often wicked humour. The new economics has lost its terror for the class he draws his protagonists from. Shanbhag’s sharp writerly eye delights in the new comic and metaphoric opportunities he detects in its shimmering kaleidoscope.

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(Published 07 October 2023, 23:07 IST)

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