Book review: The Escapists of J Mullick Road Usha AK

This is a novel written with style, flair and control; the author's ability to evoke the absurdities of human behaviour and yet look unsparingly at the ambivalent motivation of such behaviour gives the novel its depth.

The fateful events of the novel are set off innocuously enough. Pinaki Bose, a clerk of modest means, looks out of the window of his flat and catches the eye of a young man bathing on the footpath of J Mullick Road. That in itself would be unremarkable but Pinaki Bose has not bargained for the louche response from the bather. To make things worse, the offender Kalol Mondal turns out to be a local goon affiliated to the ruling Communist Party.

It is the Calcutta of the 1980s where the Communist Party exerts its inexorable influence through the grassroots,and where the chips may fall any way, as Pinaki Bose discovers when he seeks out the local party office to complain about Kalol Mondal and finds the tables cleverly being turned on him, when he all but incriminates himself as the class enemy, a parasitic landlord. He is saved by a whisker, when a flunkey comes running in to announce that a consignment of hilsa fish has arrived from Bangladesh, and the office empties out in seconds — the novel uses black humour effectively, throughout.

Pinaki Bose takes a leap in the dark and decides to build himself a house and move out of J Mullick Road, out of his tormentor Kalol Mondal’s ambit. Serendipitously, he reads an article in the newspaper by the architect Biren Roy, which speaks of the need for a city to uphold the dignity of its inhabitants — it is the rhetoric of a savant, but the simple Pinaki Bose takes it to heart. He seeks out Biren Roy to convince him to build the house - on a most unsuitable plot in the wetlands, foisted on him by the party chief.

The key strength of this novel is its well-etched and grounded characters, and the architect Biren Roy is its piece de resistance. Roy is middle-aged with a failed marriage and a failed career behind him, despite his public school education and his upper-crust affiliations.

The novel also brings out Calcutta's paradoxical attraction to Communism and its simultaneous romance with its Colonial past signalled by its Anglophone leanings and its crumbling public buildings. There is a telling scene in which Roy meets his father at an exclusive Calcutta club — “For a whole minute Mr Roy Sr stood at the door, marking down the room, his expression conveying he was used to better and bigger. As always, he gave the impression of being borne in on a palanquin, hefted by four bodybuilders.”

Roy Sr still holds his son’s legacy in trust for him, and casually forgets to bring him his monthly cheque.

Yet, despite these humiliations, there is no doubt where Biren Roy’s loyalties lie, both by instinct and predilection. For this novel uses the disruptions of class to challenge its characters and as a means to propel the plot. Biren Roy’s embitterment at not having received his due expresses itself in his contempt for the hoi polloi, his droll, misogynistic sense of humour, and a cynicism bordering on self-destruction. “… the first time I came to your office I felt I was doing a pilgrimage”, Pinaki Bose offers, worshipfully. ‘Via Dolorosa and the stations of the cross? And salvation awaiting you?’ Biren Roy retorts. Pinaki Bose’s troubles begin because he is too sensitive to his station in life; Kalol Mondal, happy exercising power as a small-time thug, is awakened to the need to better himself when he falls in love, and that is the beginning of his undoing.

The three men live in a passive-aggressive universe, till they are goaded by the key piece that moves the plot forward – Pinaki Bose’s 17-year-old daughter Dona, whose eyes shine with “a wicked light”, and who is just discovering the power she has over men, whether it is the callow Kalol or the jaded Biren Roy. Her rolls of puppy fat which reassure her indulgent father that she is still a child, set up a “joyous commotion” in Biren Roy (causing him to change his mind and accept Pinaki Bose’s proposal to build his house), and arouse a covetous instinct in the besotted Kalol Mondal.

They dance in tandem — character and destiny — making a confrontation inevitable. The three men are called to the test. Biren Roy, who pontificates to the hapless Pinaki Bose that "… design should have the complexity and elegance of a quadratic equation, the power and purity of a Vedic chant…” fails the test of plain common sense; Pinaki Bose resorts to the “low cunning" that his pusillanimity pushes him to; Kalol Bose mans up to the task and meets it head-on driving the novel to its denouement.

This is a novel written with style, flair and control; the author's ability to evoke the absurdities of human behaviour and yet look unsparingly at the ambivalent motivation of such behaviour gives the novel its depth.

Its one distracting element, if one may cavil, is the author's tendency to comment on every thought and action of every character, but it is up to a reader's jury to decide how effective this is as a stylistic device.

Liked the story?

  • 2

    Happy
  • 0

    Amused
  • 0

    Sad
  • 0

    Frustrated
  • 0

    Angry

Comments:

Book review: The Escapists of J Mullick Road Usha AK

0 comments

Write the first review for this !