A handful of grey

A serious writer of fiction puts the reader in a crux, and watches him writhe uncomfortably trying to align his beliefs with moral values. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian is a probing finger. It is only natural that a sprawling country like India has many things that divide it. But the true great divide is between the vegetarian and non-vegetarian sensibilities.

Basant Kumar, a lowly household servant, is woken up in the early hours by the fearful mooing of the cattle. He rushes out only to gape in amazement. It was as if he had “stepped inside the sun”. The house with all its inhabitants is burnt down to “soot and cinders” leaving charred stumps as mute witnesses of that horrifying incident. Books, clothes, beds all touched and transformed by the hand of fire. Curiously, the cattle shed and the outhouse where Basant Kumar sleeps, are untouched by this devastation. Madhusudan Sen, the magistrate of Batia, has an interest in the case that extends beyond the professional. The deceased Nadeem Dalvi had been his subordinate mamlatdar. Give a man a long enough rope, and he is sure to hang himself. The only survivor and witness Basant Kumar states his facts that are plain as the daylight. He had gone about his work, slogging as usual. The odd note is the insistence on how well the family dined and how little food came his way to hold his body and soul together. A persistent drumbeat “They had non-vegetarian almost every day, saab. …They ate like rakshasas”, how he “only got the scrapings of the pot”. In the outhouse, towering over the temporarily lame man who has twisted his ankle in an apparently unsuccessful rescue operation, magistrate Madhusudan Sen’s fine nose detects the faint aroma of a rich meat stew under the sharp layers of kerosene, dung and onion smells.

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s book is a faithful detailing of the Indian judicial system. The book is neither remarkable for plot nor characterisation but it provides a picture of a mind fluttering on the cusp of morality.

Like all respectable Indian towns, Batia has a 1000-year-old temple of Dayasagar Adinath, a more demanding deity than most. The magistrate’s residence happens to be in its vicinity. Not only does the magistrate have to put up with milling crowds who use his entry as a shortcut to the temple, but even more annoyingly, the staunchly non-vegetarian magistrate is served a feeble vegetarian breakfast because the deity will brook no killing in its precincts.

The story gains momentum when Basant Kumar disappears giving his guards the slip. Almost simultaneously the post-mortem report arrives bringing a surprise. Six people have been bludgeoned to death by a blunt instrument and then their bodies set on fire. A lame man can hardly go far. It is the magistrate’s presence of mind that discovers and hauls a nearly dead Basant Kumar from the well, along with the pot that once held meat curry and a small bundle of jewels. An open-and-shut case. It is the fierce desire for the meat curry that has led to these binge killings. With a slyness common to the profession, the assistant superintendent of police gets a confession signed by Basant Kumar admitting to his crime. The phlegmatic wheels of the judicial system begin to roll. Basant Kumar is ferried away to central jail awaiting trial and hearing.

Years pass. Basant Kumar is a model prisoner. He has no visitors, no wants or needs, no complaints. He is advised to plead “not guilty”. For however monotonous, living is sweeter than death. Seven years after the heinous crime, Basant Kumar is brought before the court and the judge pronounces death by hanging for him, not just for the murders but more importantly for his godlessness in committing such a crime in the presence of Dayasagar Adinath, whose reverence for all life is clear. Basant Kumar is moved to the death row and spends his next 17 years of life there along with other murderers. Jail makes for strange friendships. It is one of his jail mates who decides to act on behalf of the indifferent Basant Kumar and drafts a petition to the President of India, pleading mercy. But, it is the quirky hand of fate that plays the last card.

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s book is a faithful detailing of the Indian judicial system. The book is neither remarkable for plot nor characterisation but it provides a picture of a mind fluttering on the cusp of morality. Magistrate Sen, who readily defies the local deity for his taste in food, feels deeply hurt at the callous treatment of cattle in a slaughterhouse. He wholeheartedly believes that the death penalty is a “barbaric practice” and still sympathises with the idea that “once or twice a year, some villain should dangle at the end of a rope”. The world is not black and white, Chatterjee seems to say, but full of greys.

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A handful of grey

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