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The book that wanted to be a movie

Meghna Pant’s ‘The Man Who Lost India’ suffers from a sad case of a frequently interesting story trapped in the wrong medium

Pant imagines an India set in 2032.
Pant imagines an India set in 2032. (Getty Images)

Before every election season, curiously “well-timed” political books materialise, directly or indirectly funded by candidates on the ballot. Similarly, there’s the pragmatic step of publishing a book in order to secure copyright, especially with a view to writing an adapted screenplay soon. It has become a thing in publishing circles, especially since the streaming era’s dawn in India. Mohanlal’s character (an aspiring filmmaker) does exactly this in the second half of the Malayalam film Drishyam 2

I strongly suspect that The Man Who Lost India, Meghna Pant’s latest novel, began life as an attempted screenplay. At the line-by-line level, the book feels like a film on the page. The first page begins with a cacophony of newspaper headlines from 2032—“China Attacks India!”, “Rohtang Pass Falls in Surprise Attack”—being read by one of the novel’s main characters, Seth Singh, the richest man in Lalbag, Punjab.

Before 10 pages are up, Seth and his family (his adult children Vakil and Ida, his servants Ram and Urmila, and their son Manu) and are faced with the worst of the invading Chinese soldiers’ excesses, until a supernatural happening, involving Lord Shiva himself, saves the town. Everything is telegraphed, nothing is left to chance, or to your imagination. Think of the super-busy opening scene of the movie Jawan (2023), which used the Chinese invasion angle in a similarly frenetic, harum-scarum way.

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When not preoccupied with the book’s film trappings, Pant can tell a good, solid, entertaining story. Much of the plot (and there’s an awful lot of plot-progression within the first 50-odd pages) revolves around Seth Singh’s attempts to get his family to safety, out of India and to a friendly country.

Ida, meanwhile, has decided to get married to a tycoon’s son, in line with her dad’s wishes and as a matter of corporate consolidation. But unbeknownst to the world, Ida has been sleeping with Manu for years. A half-Indian, half-Chinese cop called Bingbing (!), meanwhile, is blackmailing Manu—she wants him to undertake a dangerous mission on behalf of the Chinese, connected to the local temple, a place with supernatural powers that also holds the key to understanding the aforementioned, anomalous Lord Shiva incident.

All of these plotlines are intermittently interesting on their own, and Pant can be very funny when she wants to. Descriptions of post-war, Chinese-occupied Lalbag are hilarious: noodles offered in temples, Seth Singh being dubbed “Lao Seth” to his chagrin, children greeting their parents with “ni-maste” (a combination of namaste and ni hao ma, its Mandarin counterpart) and so on. I laughed out loud at the revelation that Bollywood has been retired en masse, its leading stars becoming backup dancers for Chinese movies. I would have loved it if Pant stayed a while longer with these darkly funny “life under occupation” sequences. 

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But in the end, these individual arcs are hardly given any wiggle room to develop satisfactorily because, as the law of masala movies dictates, the action must hurtle forward at speed, no matter what the artistic cost. And so, a frequently interesting story remains trapped in the wrong narrative medium—like the conversation between Seth Singh and Manu on the pros and cons of the occupation. 

In theory, it’s a good idea to pit Seth and Manu, master and servant, against each other in a debate about their new Chinese overlords. Pant is good enough to let their conversation breathe, to let the fact of Chinese occupation subvert the reader’s expectations from such an interaction. The urge to keep things Bollywood-flavoured, alas, is too strong and so the scene suffers on the page, when Seth says, “The poor in India did not have much to eat or wear, Manu, but they had a vote. And it was a powerful thing. Like a tiny mosquito that could make a hijda out of a man, this little vote could make a hijda out of a government.”

The mosquito line is an old Nana Patekar dialogue that film buffs will recognise easily from the movie Yeshwant (1996). It’s a crass line and comes across as clumsy and dissonant on the page—had this been a masala film, nobody would have batted an eyelid at the tone and tenor of this line.

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This is why Pant’s book is a case of interesting story, wrong medium. Out of the pool of Indians who read English novels for pleasure, how many are likely to be familiar with the filmography of Nana Patekar? Conversely, amidst the much larger pool of people who would book advance tickets for a film adaptation of The Man Who Lost India, how many do you reckon recognise Pant’s references to Franz Kafka or S.T. Coleridge in the text? 

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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