Beyond-the-grave stories, whether in cinema (the Sam Mendes film American Beauty) or literature (most recently, Shehan Karunatilaka’s Booker-winning novel The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida), are the kind of bold narrative gambits that need a steady, assured hand at the wheel. Otherwise, timelines, emotional beats and metaphorical heft fly out of the window by the time you get the reader’s/audience’s undivided attention. Karan Madhok’s debut novel, A Beautiful Decay (Aleph Books), uses the beyond-the-grave narrative device perfectly. We meet the protagonist-narrator Vishnu Agarwal, a 21-year-old Indian computer science student, at the moment he is gunned down in a Washington, DC bar by a disgruntled, recently laid off white man.
In death, Vishnu gains a kind of omniscience (“Ad infinitum behenchod”) which gives him (and readers) all-important perspective on his life and eventual demise—the question of his own caste and class privileges in his own country, his father Shankar’s (and by extension, his own) complicity in the communal violence carried out in India, and much else besides.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle Of A Death Foretold interrogated linear cause-and-effect in the context of its central character’s death but the “interrogation” there was journalistic. Madhok’s overarching concerns remain philosophical, even spiritual, as A Beautiful Decay strings together a stunning commentary on transnationalism, privilege and the politics of hatred.
Talking about the book during a video interview, 38-year-old Madhok spoke about the distinctive narratorial voice Vishnu possesses—not-quite-Hinglish, with a steady supply of Hindi interjections to move the action along (“Suno” “Samjhe naa?” and so on are intercut with otherwise quite American-sounding sentences).
“It didn’t take me that much time to create that voice on the page because it’s the language that I think in, almost,” Madhok said. “I do carry that mixture within me. I am from Varanasi and I have family in DC. So, for me, adding the Hindi—the suno, dekho, samjho—was a very natural part of my daily language. Of course, Vishnu doesn’t fully speak like me; he curses a lot more, for example, and he has other recurring diversions.”
One of A Beautiful Decay’s most fascinating characters is Vishnu’s father Shankar, a rich Varanasi businessman. His upward mobility—from operating a decrepit hotel in Ayodhya to owning his own glass-blown jewellery business—is marked by increasing complicity in violence. Some of the people who brought down the Babri Masjid, we are shown, stayed in his hotel.
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Later, he is much more directly involved in anti-Muslim violence, something that leads to his elder son, Rishi, parting ways with the family. His philosophy is utilitarian to the point of cruelty, but, as Madhok shows us again and again, Shankar’s position is commonplace in modern-day India, where progress is so often a zero-sum game.
See how Shankar advises Vishnu at one point: “Your brother would deny it, Vishnu, but you must understand. Someone always has to suffer for you to sit here and be comfortable, use that new phone, study in a big college. We have told you this before, haven’t we? Your comfort is someone else’s catastrophe, you understand?”
Madhok spoke about this aspect of the story during the interview. “It’s almost Shankar’s way of getting his son to be a little more ruthless and a little less empathetic,” he said. “The zero-sum thing is certainly true for a lot of Indians who gained their riches after the liberalisation of the economy, like Vishnu’s father did. I am not generalising here but for a lot of them the upward mobility did come about as a result of… some sin, by stepping on somebody else, or beating them in this race for resources. They win out and a lot other people who were at the same economic level as them remain stagnant at that level. That’s the world view he has experienced and it’s what he’s passing on to his son.”
However, A Beautiful Decay is not forever preoccupied by this sociological mode of analysing privilege and oppression. Every once in a while, Madhok’s prose takes Vishnu to some truly weird places—a freedom that’s partially a result of the beyond-the-grave device.
The newfound omniscience means he can explore the past and present of his friends and family at will—including his American friends Hamid and Jess, his estranged brother Rishi, even the man who will ultimately kill him at that Washington, DC bar. And then there are these stand-alone vignettes that depict Vishnu’s newfound cosmic mode, wherein he muses upon life, the universe and everything else, much like the narrator of the TV series Mahabharata who would announce, “Main samay hoon” (I’m time itself), at the beginning of every episode.
Vishnu observes: “There are women dancing in the ancient acropolis at Dholavira and androids rhyming shers at a mushaira, earning waah-waahs by an impressed human audience. Haan haan, I have my chakra, too: the bushy spurt of hair between my eyes, the unibrow I inherited from my Papa and tried so feverishly to trim and shave out of shame.”
Madhok spoke about these experimental vignette-passages (which appear in italics), explaining that they were part of the plan from Day One. “One thing I would credit my editors with is that they wanted me to explore this in a stand-alone capacity,” Madhok said. “It was presented in a different way from the rest of the text and it gave me the freedom to think about them as separate narrative strands.”
A Beautiful Decay is a supremely confident and thoroughly entertaining debut by Madhok, who was also part of the recent Aleph anthology A Case Of Indian Marvels, which featured short stories by Indian writers under the age of 40. Blessed with wit, wisdom and linguistic flair, this is a novel that’s going to feature on a lot of year-end lists soon.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.