“It came from a long line of fighters. Its father and grandfather had also been great champions. Legend had it that Toofani’s great-grandfather, Shaitan, had gotten into a brawl with a rogue monitor lizard that bit its genitals and injected the reptilian gene into its reproductive system. When Shaitan crossed with a mate, the reptilian gene entered the bloodline and produced progeny that were physically superior to the rest of the breed. A supercock.”
There’s so much going on in this passage from Sidharth Singh’s Fighter Cock that I honestly had to put the book down and deal with the rapid-fire montage of cinematic history going through my head. You see, questions of lineage and pedigree and ‘having the right blood’ et cetera have always been crucial to the archetypal revenge story across media — starting with Hamlet, of course — but also the Hollywood or Bollywood action thriller. Hence the profusion of horse racing metaphors in these movies: “Shart ghodon par lagaate hain, sheron par nahi (One bets on horses, not lions)” warns Ajay Devgn in Omkara, for example.
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Fighter Cock is a self-aware work of genre fiction. Its protagonist Shershah or ‘Sheru’ is the proverbial lethal weapon, a strapping, reclusive strongman on the run after pissing off the wrong people in Mumbai. He is hired by the king of Shikargarh in central India, where cockfighting is the foundation of a small but redoubtable gambling economy. The ‘Karianath’ fighter cocks (there is a real-life ‘Kadaknath’ breed of black chicken in central India) bred by the maharaja ruled the roost in years gone by, but they are increasingly being upstaged by the ‘Aseel’ cocks bred by Teja, his out-of-wedlock son and therefore an ‘illegitimate’ challenger to the throne (the question around ‘pedigree’ is cleverly used in both contexts throughout the novel). The name ‘Teja’ itself is a possible hat-tip to the villain of the Aamir Khan/Salman Khan classic comedy Andaz Apna Apna, who is also a ‘familial black sheep’ (being the twin brother of Paresh Rawal’s character).
The best thing about Fighter Cock is it does not pull its punches while rolling out the masala blockbuster hijinks. The decadent raja really does push the limits of decadence: drinking like a fish, gorging on Karianath delicacies (these are also aphrodisiacs, fittingly) organizing orgies for his guests. A concubine named Rani ‘tests’ Sheru’s endurance (Sheru’s boudoir exploits become common knowledge soon), a mysterious half-Kairu (the indigenous people of Shikargarh) woman named Kanya wants to liberate the people from the raja’s drunken tyranny and a full roster of servants, accountants and corrupt government officials round off the Shikargarh wing of distinctive characters.
The treatment is very Bollywood, and I mean that in the nicest way possible; the narrative energy crackles off the page and there are plenty of nudge-wink moments where the author seems to acknowledge the contrived nature of the goings-on.
Kanya, significantly, is one of the few ‘big picture’ characters on display, representing a kind of dispassionate, journalistic assessment of the situation (despite the fact that her Kairu lineage means she has skin in the game). During their very first meeting, she tells Sheru that even if Teja were to usurp the raja’s power, it wouldn’t work out all that well for the locals.
“How much employment will it create? It’s all hogwash. The reality is that the raja is the figurehead of an old system of oppression — of women, of the poor, of the animals and the land itself. Teja will simply replace him in the guise of a politician, a businessman or a thug. Nothing will change.”
Kanya’s father, the late PK Nair, becomes the source of a great little device used liberally throughout the book. Nair, a PWD engineer working out of Bombeli district (where Shikargarh is a subdivision) in the 1980s, wrote copiously in his journals. These missives from the past start quite a few chapters in Fighter Cock, and are an excellent, postmodern way of tying past and present narratives together. For example, one such section describes, with the appropriate technical details, why Shikargarh has a perennial water table problem, and how that led into their becoming a gambling economy.
“When Mr Kamal Kumar took charge of the PWD ministry in 1980, he scrapped all existing plans and simply instructed us to build a small dam to the north of the khadda and divert the waters of the Karamphoota river into the Harnadi system, thereby depriving Shikargarh of its right to traditional waters. Now the people of Shikargarh are solely dependent on rain and groundwater for all its purposes. It’s not surprising that many of the farmers who had sprung up with the Green Revolution have now resorted to rearing Karianath chicken and have taken heavily to drinking and gambling.”
Think about the ‘Inset’ sections of Sacred Games for example; Nair’s journals fulfill a similar purpose. They also echo a very different strain of literature in India; ex-bureaucrats and other government officials writing about the regions they were posted in, people like Upamanyu Chatterjee or the magnificent Odia writer Gopinath Mohanty (whose novel Paraja is a staple of university curricula across the country).
Of course, the Bollywood riches come at a price. The female characters, even when they are exercising genuine control over the narrative, are written in a male-gazey way, to an extent. The English/Hindi bilingual puns are overused a little bit, too. However, I found these to be minor quibbles with what is a thoroughly entertaining book on the whole. Cinematically written and cleverly paced, Fighter Cock is destined to light up your screens someday soon. So I suggest you read it first for, y’know, bragging rights among your couch potato friends.
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