On the jacket of the hardcover edition of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel, his publisher describes the book as “a meticulously crafted literary thriller”. That sounds right if you go by the plot summary. But once you have read a couple of pages, this phrase begins to feel rather limited, barely conveying a whiff of the uproariously kinky energy with which Villainy bristles.
Set in Delhi between 1997-2016, Chatterjee’s story draws a neat line between the halcyon early years of post-liberalisation India and the nightmare days of demonetisation. The 20-year timeline is bookended by two deaths—one a freakishly gruesome murder, the other a sly and sophisticated deed—with several macabre killing sprees erupting along the way. Money changes hands frequently, vast quantities of it. The law and order machinery falters, grinding to a halt for long periods. It is oiled at regular intervals by rich and corrupt families with their ill-gotten wealth to save their ill-begotten scions. Villainy has just the right blend of masala in it—that preposterous concoction of bathos, tragedy and outrage news channels, Bollywood movies and OTT series employ to hook audiences. It is guaranteed to make you want to turn the pages.
If you are a fan of Chatterjee’s sparkling debut novel English, August, who has never quite felt the same degree of rapture for his subsequent output, Villainy may be the book you were waiting for. The marijuana-fuelled dopey comedy of Agastya Sen’s life in Madna has hardened here into sardonic humour, liberally encrusted with blood and gore. In English, August, Chatterjee trained his razor-sharp eye on the foibles of India’s elite administrative corps posted in the boondocks, struggling to uplift the poorest of the poor against all odds—the biggest being the pervasive ennui of their own existence.
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With those same searing eyes, and the advantage of decades of service in the IAS, Chatterjee now inspects the lives of the ultra-rich in post-liberalisation India and the ever-growing inequality that separates them from the serving classes—a cohort of chauffeurs, maids, mistresses, handymen and thugs for hire. The inexhaustible purchasing power of black money and the doddering pace of India’s judiciary are allied elements in the plot. In the hands of a lesser writer, these themes would have added up to a critique of the travesty that is modern India. But the inveterate storyteller that he is, Chatterjee never shies away from making mischief. So, he turns what could have been textbook social science lessons into an unabashedly amoral tale—entertaining, titillating, but also filled with pathos.
The story opens with a tremendous sentence, serpentine and filled with the gravitas of Henry James’ pen: “Death of having been much on her mind, it did not seem surprising to Dr Mujumdar that she should, at seven-forty of a December morning, during her constitutional in the neighbourhood park, be the first to come upon the corpse or rather, to recognise it to be a dead body.” What follows is a serio-comic exposition of the travails of India’s police system, embellished with dollops of gallows humour at the morgue, before the second, much longer, section of the book begins to set the context.
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Two decades before the body in the park is discovered, the spoilt son of a dissolute diamond merchant sets out on a rampage in his father’s brand-new Mercedes. Young Pukhraj has the skeleton key to every nook and cranny of his paternal mansion. He steals his father Nemichand’s unlicensed revolver, a few bundles of cash, downs a couple of Es, then hits the gas. At the end of a very long night, he has killed several unsuspecting victims, including a dog, provoked by the flimsiest motivations and has brought ruination upon himself and his family. What’s more, with his characteristic selfishness, Pukhraj has got Parmatma, the chauffeur’s son and his only friend, embroiled in his staggering mess.
In a predictable move, Nemichand strikes a deal with Atmaram, Parmatma’s father. Under duress, the employer pays the driver a hefty bribe—a sum that would take the lowly employee over eight decades to earn on his current salary—in exchange for Parmatma taking the blame on Pukhraj’s behalf. Despite his misgivings, Atmaram accepts the offer. But from this point on, the plot becomes a giddy roller-coaster ride. Soon, it’s hard to tell friend from foe, innocent from criminal. The seemingly upright show their devious streak without any qualms, while the “low lives” behave with unexpected humanity.
While fiendishly clever in its unfolding, Chatterjee’s story isn’t a classic whodunit. Except for the unidentified corpse in the park at the very beginning, every death in Villainy is obviously attributed to a murderer. Every escape plan, and its fate, is documented in consummate detail. And yet, it’s hard to resist the pull of the plot. Chatterjee’s exaggerated style, his gift for layering detail upon detail, is the glue that keeps the reader stuck to the story till the end.
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Particularly riveting, and morbidly entertaining, are the sections in the prison, where Pukhraj and Parmatma witness a level of depravity and squalor that only those elected to the inner circles of hell do. The gritty realism of these passages—describing the stench of urine and faeces, the senseless violence and basest human instincts—are not for the tender-hearted. Such baroque outbursts aren’t unfamiliar to loyal readers of Chatterjee either. But Villainy manages to bypass the gratuitous excess of its predecessors, Fairy Tales At Fifty and Weight Loss.
The shifting sands of fortune experienced by the rich and poor in Villainy may seem to mirror the fates of the driver and employer in Aravind Adiga’s much feted novel, The White Tiger. Thankfully, Villainy avoids the straight and narrow path. In Chatterjee’s wiser and far more mature vision of the world, no one, rich or poor, victim or perpetrator, has a monopoly on suffering. Or, for that matter, on perfidy and cruelty.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.