Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Review: Vikas Swarup - 6 suspects

Vikas Swarup’s new novel begins with an account of the misdemeanors committed by a rich, unscrupulous young man named Vicky Rai, who knows he can rely on his dad’s contacts to shield him from the law. Vicky’s career in crime comes to a head when he whips out a gun and shoots a bargirl who refuses him a drink. Though there are witnesses to the murder, the trial turns into a farce and -to widespread outrage - he is soon released. Then, at a farmhouse party held to celebrate his acquittal, Vicky is himself shot dead by an unknown assassin.

The first half of this story is, of course, a barely disguised version of the Jessica Lall-Manu Sharma case. Since Vicky is the most visible face of the darker side of a society where the rich and powerful know they can get away with anything, his own murder seems like an almost symbolic act: an incensed middle class striking out against its tormenters; the shot that launches the revolution. But it’s also a real killing, carried out with a real gun, and there are six unlikely suspects: a native from an island in the Andaman, searching for a sacred stone that was stolen from his tribe; a popular young actress who pretends to be a bimbo but quotes Nietzsche; Vicky’s father Jagannath Rai, a slimy politician; an enterprising mobile-phone thief; a retired bureaucrat with a split-personality problem; and an idiot American who was conned into coming to India to get married. Which of them is the killer, what is the motive and how did most of them come to be at this party in the first place?

The thing to admire about Six Suspectsis the breadth of Swarup’s storytelling. This book is really a collection of six separate stories – all of which are reasonably well-plotted – that eventually converge into a large narrative. Many other authors would have been temped to milk this material for all it was worth, to perhaps spread it over two or three books, but Swarup packs it all into one dense novel. Its a book that one can begin in the morning and by late noon would have completed it. Conversations that could easily have been finished in three or four sentences meander on, there is too much exposition, and some of the sub-plots in the personal stories of the six suspects seem to have been included only so that each person could be given a novella-length background. It takes a lot of patience to get through the section about the tribal criss-crossing India – from Calcutta to Chennai to Banaras to Allahabad – in search of his talisman, or the one where the American, Larry Page, finds himself kidnapped by a terrorist group after being mistaken for the Google founder of the same name, or – worst of all – the bizarrely convoluted story about the bureaucrat possessed by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi.

Even given this long-windedness, Six Suspects would have been a more convincing read if Swarup had stuck with the omniscient-narrator format. Instead, he has three of the suspects – the actress, the American and the thief – tell their own stories, and authenticity becomes a problem in these first-person passages. The actress says “so there I was, immersed in my private digital ecosystem” to describe her communing with an iPod. There’s no end to the puerile similes used by the lovelorn American (“I was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking-chairs”; “I reckon a love like ours is scarce as hen’s teeth”), though they are amusing in small doses. And when “Munna Mobile”, the thief, goes to a Chinese restaurant in a five-star hotel for the first time, we get – purportedly in his own voice – this dubious wealth of description:

Brass lanterns hang from the ceiling, flame-spewing golden dragons adorn the walls. The furniture is elegant, rectangular mica-topped tables complemented by black, high-backed chairs. The waitress, a chinky-eyed girl clad in a long, slinky blue dress with dragon motifs and slits, welcomes me with the effusiveness normally reserved for heavy tippers.

Six Suspects is ridden with caricatures – from corrupt Indian politician, perpetually manipulating strings, to dumb, insular American who comes to love a third-world country (“where cows are worshipped like Goddesses rather than turned into steak”). It would be a mistake to over-stress this aspect of the novel – and to forget that people like Jagannath Rai and Larry Page really do exist – but the book’s use of these character types precludes any lasting insights into the workings of a very complex society struggling with injustice and disparity. Every nexus, every command issued by an oily politician is dealt with in straightforward cause-and-effect terms. The investigative journalist and the TV reporter (a Barkha Dutt stand-in, named – if you must know – Barkha Das) are sanctimonious. People speak in platitudes and articulate their flaws and motivations as if they were pinning easy-to-read labels on themselves for the edification of the reader. (“We hit people not to show our strength but to mask our weakness,” philosophizes a police inspector after an interrogation, “we pick only on the poor and the powerless, because they cannot hit back.”) Rarely do the bad guys bother to delude themselves that they are in some nebulous way working not for self-interest but for the greater good (which is something that happens all the time in the real world).

“Even murder can become addictive” is the final, anarchist sentence of Six Suspects. Swarup’s book is similar in some ways to another recently published novel, Aravind Adiga’sThe White Tiger, which was about a lower-class man simultaneously resentful of and aspiring towards the lives of the privileged. When Swarup has someone point out that “there are occasions when murder is not only justified, it is a ritual of righteousness”, it vaguely echoes something said by Adiga’s protagonist, Balram Halvai: “Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues to you near Parliament House in Delhi. But all I wanted was the chance to be a man – and for that, one murder was enough.” The difference is that the murder in The White Tiger is committed by someone who wants to step into his victim’s shoes, while the killing of Vicky in Six Suspects is to be seen as a wake-up call for a corrupt society. Adiga’s novel was more ironical, more attuned to how easily the leaders of a revolution can become the very thing they set out to destroy, but Six Suspects is powered by idealism. On more than one occasion, its generalisation of people and situations reminded me of Madhur Bhandarkar’s films, which 
try to expose the dark underbelly of a social stratum by doling out clichés about it.

Except that while Bhandarkar at least deals with one issue at a time (the high-society-media nexus in Page 3, big-business corruption in Corporate, the politics of beggars’ cliques in Traffic Signal), Six Suspects tries to be a ready reckoner to all the contradictions and injustices in Indian society. Vicky Rai himself is a convenient amalgamation of many high-profile real-world offenders whose misdeeds – along with the justice system’s inability to prosecute them – have shocked middle-class India in recent years. (In the book’s first chapter – an improbably long and self-indulgent column written by an investigative journalist – we learn that apart from shooting the bargirl, Vicky has run over sleeping pavement dwellers in his BMW and killed endangered black bucks. Sounds familiar?) But there are numerous other allusions to burning topics of our time, so that you get the impression the author has a list of “points to be included” and is ticking them off one by one.

Call-centres make an appearance (Larry finds himself working in one and is confronted by an irate American customer who refuses to believe he is speaking to a real American), there are references to reverse-colonialism (“it has become almost de rigueur in Bollywood to have at least one song with some firang white dancers doing jhatka-matka at the bidding of our own desi brown-skinned actors”), the Bhopal gas tragedy, globe-trotting charlatans posing as holy men, the contrast between the glitzy mall culture and the lives of lower-class Indians, and the corruption that exists in every conceivable walk of life. There’s so much going on here that the book could almost have been sub-titled “An Encyclopaedia of the Social Issues Facing Modern India”, but somewhere amidst all this the novel that presumably set out to tell a coherent story is lost.


This is reviewed from: Ill write my own when I finish the book tomorrow :-)



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