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Something wicked this way comes

Upamanyu Chatterjee's new pageturner asks questions about the nature of justice and retribution and makes you ponder about what villainy really is.
Last Updated : 16 April 2022, 20:15 IST
Last Updated : 16 April 2022, 20:15 IST

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An unidentified body is found in a park. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s latest, ‘Villainy’, though, is not your typical crime thriller or a police procedural. While the first part does take a look at police procedures around the unidentified body, the second part of the novel examines the entire gamut of the criminal justice system, bureaucracy, political clout and corruption in prisons.

Upamanyu Chatterjee has always been interested in questions of privilege and power hierarchies. In his famed debut novel, ‘English, August’, Agastya Sen, IAS, is posted to a tiny town of Madna and comes face to face with small-town India and exposes the cocoon that city-bred August has been living in. Chatterjee followed it up with other novels, including ‘The Mammaries of the Welfare State’, ‘The Last Burden’, ‘Weight Loss’ and ‘The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian’, among other works.

The two parts of ‘Villainy’ set in Delhi are separated by nearly two decades. A major portion of the novel is set in the nineties. There’s an array of incidents showing the nexus shared by politicians, cops, the wealthy and the not-so-well-to-do who want to scale the social ladder. Pukhraj is the son of a reputed jeweller Nemichand Saraf while Parmatma Kumar is the son of the jeweller’s driver, Atmaram. Pukhraj is an entitled youngster who is on the constant lookout for a high, either through drugs or alcohol, and in two random situations, shoots two people and a pet. However, his moral compass is absent — he has no remorse. What is the role of the driver Atmaram and his son Paramatma? What is the role of the accused Pukhraj’s family?

Sordid saga

While the answers to these questions unravel, Upamanyu Chatterjee paints a compelling picture of post-liberalisation India in the second part of ‘Villainy’. The author’s interest in the socio-political landscape of India, more specifically the eighties and nineties, can be found in most of his fiction, and ‘Villainy’ doesn’t disappoint. Anyone familiar with the political events and newsmakers of the nineties will easily spot the spirit of those times in this novel as well.

While Agastya Sen’s (‘English, August’) privilege came from his education and the upper class he belonged to, Pukhraj’s privilege comes from the wealth that his family has amassed. His father has clout, both muscle and money. Many conversations and incidents in ‘Villainy’ are reminiscent of some of Delhi’s high-profile cases, many of which the author refers to. Alluding to the victim of a murder case that hogged the headlines in the nineties, Saraf tells his wife Ghazal, “Pity I never met her. She must’ve been a lot like you.” This holds a mirror to the state of their relationship and the way patriarchy works. On her part, Ghazal too finds ways in which to exert her influence and gain agency. There are layers of complicity in the sordid saga and you begin to wonder who is, in fact, using whom.

Dark humour

There is a line-up of characters who bring up the Upamanyu Chatterjee brand of dark humour. One of them is a judge who presides over the Pukhraj case. His need to use the case as a stepping stone in his career means that he plans elaborately to set a date for the hearing. A date when no other important event captures the imagination of the nation. “Alas. Of what use were masterly judgments if television and the newspapers didn’t say so on prime time, on Page 1, and instead referred to them en passant, if at all, after a clip on the likelihood of the monsoon being delayed before it arrived in Kerala or on Page 9 beneath an item on the certainty of the prices of bicycles going up before the Budget?” Eventually, in less than 600 working days, Judge Lodhi is all set to pronounce his verdict when war strikes in May 1999. Finally, in August 1999, he pronounces his “masterly” judgement. There are other twists to the saga, and in a parallel to the murder case of a top Delhi model in the late 90s, the accused gets parole, which is then misused. The author’s depiction of the prison system makes for engaging reading.

‘Villainy’ asks questions about the nature of justice and retribution. It also makes you wonder what the nature of villainy is. “The principles of villainy and uncertainty appear to be beguilingly similar. They are both terribly all-pervasive, for one, and further, one can never be fully certain either of what constitutes villainy, of whether it is not governed, just as much as the principle of uncertainty, by the four cardinal characteristics of time, location, movement and spin, and of whether it is not just as unstable, volatile — and slippery, in short.”

This is a pageturner with a plot that comes with many a twist, the last chapter including. The mystery may have a resolution plot-wise but it leaves you pondering over the nature of villainy all over again.

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Published 16 April 2022, 20:08 IST

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