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Nuanced take on loss and fortitude

Chandan Pandey’s The Keeper of Desolation, translated from the Hindi original by Sayari Debnath, is not only a maelstrom of intellectual fury but also the default voice of every dispossessed and disillusioned Indian.
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 23:52 IST
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 23:52 IST

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It is normal for heads of various democracies to address their parliament or nation through a national address each year. It is almost unheard of for a similar 10-year report written in-depth and succinctly via literature. This goes way above and beyond all expectations from a writer or a short story collection. Be warned, the “you” entering this book will be lost forever when you turn the last page; so profound is the impact of this work on sensitive readers.

Chandan Pandey’s The Keeper of Desolation, translated from the Hindi original by Sayari Debnath, is not only a maelstrom of intellectual fury but also the default voice of every dispossessed and disillusioned Indian. Who is desolate, one might ask. Us and all around us: if we aren’t, we ought to be. “The crowd thought of it as Sumer’s naivete when he said, Sahab, you will be surprised to know that we too are citizens of this country.” For this, Sumer is slapped, about to be arrested and then in a twist of fate crushed under a stampede meant to protest the treatment he is meted out.

Each of the stories packs such voluminous detail that their resonances and resultant discomfort do not still even days after. The milieu is not villages spouting items from woke listicles to comfort urban imaginings so favoured by OTT, but real-life villages. Here, four bridges are built over arable land in tiny desolate villages simply to favour contractor donors to the CM’s campaign. And each villager witnesses their erasure with wit, fortitude and yes, desolation. Just as they witness injustice and mob lynching where a man is torn from his wife’s side and beaten to death for demurring at conceding a seat on a train. While in faraway cities, effete citizens try to grapple with the daily tragedies of love and belonging.

In essence, this is fine political writing, a searing litany of all the misery visited upon the grassroots men and women by those in power of any form. Each protagonist, be they teachers in small towns or out-flung villages in interior UP or those trying to live by art in metropolises, is knowledgeable yet helpless. This helplessness is compounded by the fact that he knows the law and rights. The words are acerbic with disdain for petty power brokers. “When I visited him, I found him writing two articles, one with each hand. With his left hand, he was writing about the necessity of land grabbing, and with the other one, a condemnation of the act. He even finished both articles at the same time. He asked me to read them. Wah, I thought, what an intellectual!”

It is perhaps inexplicable that despite our robust publishing industry, before this collection, few would have heard of Chandan Pandey whereas just a couple of pages of the writing is enough to vouch for a precocious mind and refined scholarship. Satire rarely touches its pinnacle as it does in these pages, as when there are accusations of impropriety in candidate selection in the district. How can mere accusation dim the chances for the youth of an entire district? “An Accusations Minister would have to be appointed. I would also insist that a Ministry of Accusations be formed.” 

The author’s trump card is his storytelling. In perhaps the most daring display of pointillism in writing, the author meanders on; not quite coherent, not quite pausing to establish relevance. And when bewilderment is about to set in, every element begins to interact and bloom into a full garden of meanings and nuances. Unnecessary details tell their own story. A minor character becomes a symbol of hope crushed.

The story ‘Forgetting’ is not only about a family that forgets their child once he is tasked to study for engineering entrances but also about how quickly the police can turn this same Gulshan into Gulfam merely to label him a terrorist and incarcerate him. Instead of an IIT, he now lives in a shed, blind and hard of hearing, possibly due to head injuries from police brutality, although his own family have been no less brutal in their dreams of better days.

Only in extremely rare cases do philosophy, fearless activism, deep thought, skill, intimate knowledge of the chosen domain and utter confident craftsmanship coincide to produce such marvels of literature. Thanks to the translator for this labour of love and for bringing this jewel to us who read primarily in English. If you gift books, this is for the one you love most.

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Published 08 June 2024, 23:52 IST

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