Lounge Original: ‘The Twenty-Sixth Giant’ by Prayaag Akbar
Is my statue bigger than yours? In his piece for the Lounge year-end special, novelist Prayaag Akbar measures the height of statue politics
SMS (Received 4:32 AM):
Problem. Call when you see this.
SMS (Sent 6:41 AM):
What now? I just woke up. In 30 minutes.
Outgoing Call (6:43 AM):
“Okay, couldn’t wait. What happened now?"
“Just say it. It’s too early. Don’t waste time."
“It’s Manohar. He wants some changes."
“Changes? Changes? What kind of bloody changes?"
“The design. They need a few things changed."
“Look man. I’m standing in my bathroom. I went to bed something like three hours ago. I haven’t had any coffee. I’m in my bathroom and I’m staring at myself in the mirror and I look like hell and my razor blades are right here and I will fricking cut myself and then I’m going to fly to Delhi and come cut you and then I’ll go to Manohar’s bordello-looking mansion in his arsewipe little state and I’ll show him a change or two. See how I’m not raising my voice? That’s how you know I’m serious. I’m not angry at all. I’m dead fucking serious."
“It’s just a few changes, Mrig. Don’t be like this. You can do it. You know you can."
“Is he out of his mind or what? I sat in his house for three months. I showed him design after design. This Girdharilal’s head, it’s planted in my brain. Printed, whatever. I can’t get it out. That’s all I see. When I sleep, that horrible moustache appears in my dreams. I’m not lying. I swear to god I had a dream last week where giant bronze moustaches were falling from the sky and breaking buildings and bridges and rucking up mountains and everyone was coming up to me, crying and shrieking, carrying their bleeding children, saying it’s your fault, isn’t it, it’s your fault, isn’t it. That was the worst part. They kept asking if it was my fault. They wouldn’t say it. They wouldn’t even come out and say it."
“It’s one of those things that can’t be helped, Mrig. This is how politicians are. We knew it when we got into this mess."
“I don’t care. We have our contract. Once the basic plan was finalized, they were allowed to make three rounds of changes. That was the deal. They can’t keep doing this."
“No man, it’s you who doesn’t understand. I put everything I had into this. Every ounce of artistry and sweat and self-respect and anything else you care to name. He can’t do this at the last minute. I’m done. I don’t have anything left."
“You can do it, Mrig. I know you can."
“Need to go. I’ll call you back."
Outgoing Call (7:21 AM)
“Hey Mrig. Good you called. I was worried. How are you feeling? Cooled down?"
“I’m cool, man. I’m cool. Cool as I need to be. So tell me, who’s going to talk to the contractor?"
“Exactly. You thought I was going to do it, didn’t you? No way. No bloody way. You know what these huge Chinese contractors are like? This isn’t some ordinary company either. It’s owned by a guy in their Politburo. They’ll have our balls for breakfast. You know what kind of breakfast they eat there? Their company started the casting last month! Last month! If I send over new designs now they will slice us and slice Manohar and slice up all of Amma India like we’re stalks of goddamn celery. This is the problem, man. These politicians think they know everything. First they insisted we work with Chinese contractors, because all the twenty-five other statues were built by Chinese construction companies, so how can our great Girdharilal’s statue be built by Biharis working for Punjabis, that’s what Manohar said, isn’t it? I remember exactly what he said. I’m glad. I’m really bloody glad. Now the Chinese can end all of our misery. Sab ko khatam. Best way."
Read here: THE LOUNGE 2018 YEAR END SPECIAL
“I’ll talk to Manohar’s people. I’ll make sure you don’t have to deal with the contractor. How about that? Does that work?"
Click Click Click.
“That’s not even it. That’s only part of the problem. It’s that they’re demanding changes now. After all the work we’ve put in. How can they do this?"
“It’s because of his daughter’s wedding, apparently."
“You know how long it took to get this design right? This is the twenty sixth giant statue in India. This isn’t the first! This isn’t the second! There are twenty five of these monstrosities all over this country. Four in the ocean already, two on either coast, so we couldn’t go the Liberty way. Two in the Himalayan valleys, two in the desert—you know I would’ve loved an Ozymandias. Four lining the course of the Ganga. Eight on the Deccan plateau. Eight! You know now planes going in and out of Hyderabad have to fly at special elevations because the statues are screwing with their radar? The twenty sixth giant. You think I don’t feel that pressure? If it was going to stand out in any way, if my work was going to be remembered for anything, this design had to be bloody perfect. It had to be absolutely everything. And that’s what I did, man. That’s what I goddamn did. They gave me the ugliest man in Indian history and I gave them a thing of beauty."
“Don’t cry, Mrig. Bhai. It’s okay. It really is. You’re right. I know you are. I know what you put into this. We did it the best way possible. We did a beautiful thing. If they can’t see that, if they can’t see how good it is, that’s their fault."
Click Click Click.
“But what are we going to do?"
“We’re going to do it. We can’t let this beat us. It’s their mistake, but we can’t be beaten by their mistake. We can’t lose everything because they can’t decide."
“Wait a second. What was that you said earlier. The daughter’s wedding. What did you say about the daughter’s wedding?"
“Well—I gather—and this is just what I’ve been told, I don’t know for sure one way or the other, I think it has something to do with Manohar’s daughter’s wedding."
“I need you to explain."
“Well, see, Manohar’s younger daughter got married last night. In the morning was the shaadi and at night there was the reception."
“The PM was supposed to come to the wedding. At the last minute he didn’t show up. Apparently it was very embarrassing to Manohar. You know how he makes a big deal about the PM and him being great friends. The reception was being held in a hotel that Manohar owns in the capital. They had built a special helipad on the roof, and that hotel, apparently, it’s one of those Tier-II five-stars, you know, not built like the ones in proper cities, so they had to evacuate the guests and get the roof reinforced or some such nonsense, and there was a whole production about it. The PM didn’t even call to congratulate. Manohar is hopping. He has since found out that the PM went to Maharashtra for campaigning. He’s taken it as a personal insult. Last night at 2 AM he decided to withdraw his three MPs from the coalition in the centre."
Click Click Click.
“I don’t understand. What does this have to do with the statue?"
“Manohar wants it to be higher by thirty five metres. He’s decided that’s the way it’s got to be."
“Higher by thirty five metres? Has the man lost his mind? Where am I going to add thirty five metres to our statue. Should I give him a top hat? Girdharilal goes to Ascot, is that it? Or even better, Girdharilal, Lincoln impersonator. How ’bout that?"
“Headgear isn’t a bad idea, actually. Did he wear turbans? Do you know? In the photos we have of him, have you seen him in a turban? That would solve everything!"
Read here: THE LOUNGE 2018 YEAR END SPECIAL
“That would solve nothing! It would look ghastly. This isn’t a sculpture from junior school Art class. I can’t plonk a turban on his head just because it needs to be taller. This is eighteen months of meticulous plan and design. Each fold in his dhoti is designed a certain way, keeping in mind wind and air pressure and thermal dynamics and all sorts of things you wouldn’t even begin to understand. But enough of that. What I want to know is, what does our exalted PM not attending this chick’s wedding have to do with the height of the statue?"
“There’s a rule for these statues. I don’t know if you know this, but the twenty five statues before ours, they all followed this. If you’re from the same party, or your party is coalition partners with the PM’s party, you make the statue shorter than the first one, the one he made all those years ago. This is apparently a very big deal. That’s why most of the statues are just that little bit shorter than 240m. But there are three or four states that aren’t ruled by the PM’s party and its allies. Those states have built taller statues. It’s their way of getting back at him."
“Seems pretty childish."
“You’re telling me."
“And these morons play these games with public money?"
“That is precisely what these morons do."
“Twenty five giant statues across the country. You know what Trevor Noah said on The Daily Show, right? He said it’s easier now to find a 200m statue in India than it is to find a public bathroom. I think he’s right."
“Forget Noah. I want to know what Freud would say about all this. These old men putting up giant erections all over the country, saying mine is bigger, mine is bigger."
Click Click Click.
“Did you hear that? What is that click click click, that incessant clicking?! Are they tapping our phones now? What the hell is that noise?"
“Don’t be paranoid, brother. That’s the nanobattery I gave you. Remember on your birthday? I had IT install it. That click means you have to charge it. You only have to charge your phone once a month now. That’s why I got it for you, since your phone is always dying. Don’t tell me once a month is too much."
“I don’t give a damn about batteries or birthdays. What are we going to do? Do I really need to come up with a new design?"
“Yeah, we’ll have to send them something, I’m afraid. And we need to work fast."
“I can think of one solution that’d fit the design. How about we give this Girdhari a halo? Like they used to do for the Buddha—the Kushan Empire statues at the National Museum have them. You know what I mean, right? That plate-like halo behind Girdhari’s head. Gautam Girdhari. The Unenlightened One."
“Heh. But that’s the problem, Mrig. He’s not a god. I know they basically worship the guy in that state. But that’s because he’s the guy who gave them their identity, their caste pride, whatever you want to call it. He isn’t a god. Wouldn’t a halo be too much?"
“Don’t talk nonsense. This is India. Here the politicians think they’re gods and the godmen behave like politicians. Let’s add a halo to the design. Everyone will find it perfectly natural—if they even notice."
“Will you send some mock-ups so I can run it by them? And what if Manohar objects?"
“If Manohar objects we only have to leak it to the local press. CM Insults Girdharilal, headlines like that. That would wo…"
“Mrig? Hello? Hello? Mrig? Damnit ... Once a month. He only needs to charge the thing once a month."
Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila (Simon & Schuster) won the Crossword Book Award (Jury Prize) in 2018 and the Tata LitLive Award for Debut Fiction in 2017. His novel is being developed into a series by Netflix. He is a Senior Fellow of Krea University.