In The Flesh
In a small town soon after Independence, death and tragedy explodes in a terrain layered with, and circumscribed by, food and stalked by hunger
In 1988 Upamanyu Chatterjee, a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) arrived in the literary world with his debut novel ‘English, August’. Set in the fictional town of Madna it charts a year in the life of Agastya Sen as he trains to become a civil servant.
It is a story of the bureaucracy and the accessories it takes on to Indianize it (flashing red light on the official car) making it marginally different from its parent -- the British Indian Civil Service (ICS). This was a world Dali, Bunuel or Kafka could not have imagined. Where Chaucer and Swift are irrelevancies in a postcolonial age. Where a falling statue of Gandhi, in danger of being toppled, is propped up by an inappropriately positioned rod in a rather uncomfortable manner.
I adapted that novel into a movie.
After six novels, ‘Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian’ is Chatterjee’s first novella. At 116 pages it digs deep in the flesh.
The story centers around a killing in the fictional town of Batia, twenty five months after the British have left the subcontinent. Madhusudan Sen, the first ICS sub divisional magistrate, is horrified by his vegetarian breakfast of “greasy aalu parathas and dahi on his first morning in the sub-division, and toast, cornflakes and milk on the second.” He summons his cook, ‘Eggs and sausages, liver, toast, fruit and tea was my typical breakfast in Calcutta,’ he explained gently to the nervous man. ‘Sausages, I can understand, might be difficult for us here. But the rest?’
Sen learns that an area in Batia from the Temple to the Tank has been marked vegetarian. ‘Meat, fish, eggs, liver, not allowed. Not even onions and garlic. Out of respect, sir.’ Sen asks, ‘Has a Government Resolution or Order been issued to that effect?’ This is classic Chatterjee. No resolution or order can tame the chaos that will ensue. This is a world where blood will be spilt over flesh and food.
Basant Kumar, man servant to the Mamlatdar — administrator of a smaller division of the district — is fed less than left overs of food. When ferrying a vat of beef stew for his employer’s family, the aroma of spices and his hunger overtakes his sense. He stops at a roadside and eats. And eats. And eats.
Back home, the Mamlatdar’s family notices the drop in the level of the food quantity. Kumar snaps. He is found guilty of murdering the entire family and sentenced to death. What follows for the next 24 years is the dogged pursuit of justice.
The world of Chatterjee is not an easy one. There are no simple answers. No redemption. No one is saved.
“The quality of justice is not to be strained” says Sen, like a refrain. But at what cost? And where does mercy lie in this? At the center of this story is the debate of justice and mercy. Which should prevail? What choice does one make? Madhusudan Sen is clear which side he is on. He is driven by a singular sense of justice. He pursues it till the very end. At the cost of what he eats and what he chooses to give up. Until he has achieved what he believes is just.
But what do you do when one does not have food?
The story is a premonition of times to come. A troubled future of this nation born a few months earlier where food, religion and politics will intersect. It is a battle of survival between the non-vegetarian and the one who does not eat meat. One can’t help be reminded of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri and the lynchings of Dalits.
The humor is savage. In the midst of death and tragedy, the obsession with food and the freedom to chose what one wants to eat remains central. At the bottom of this lies a hunger.
Chatterjee takes revenge on that misplaced notion of a lack of plot and writes a gripping, ferocious tale which is unrelenting. The irony of Madhusudhan Sen, ICS should not be lost. The astute reader will look into their narrative crystal ball and see him marry a Goan and have a son who the couple will name Agastya Sen.
The twist at the end -- and yes, the story does have one -- is shocking. The author leaves you with many questions and the ‘Revenge of the Non Vegetarian’ is a novella that will haunt you long after you have put it down.
Chatterjee doesn’t cow down from what is happening on the ground. The sins of flesh and mind lie at the heart and in the hands of the people. No one is spared.
Chatterjee raises uncomfortable questions. Is the vegetarian more wily? The non-vegetarian simpler? On death row Sen visits Basant and asks, ‘Would all vegetarians, for instance, be opposed to the death penalty for even the most despicable murderer? Because it is not quite clear to me, the link between the carnivore and the love of slaughter. One thinks, you know, of the horrors inflicted on Europe and the world in the last decade by a vegetarian.’
Closer home one is (barely) living through the horrors of our own vegetarian.
(Dev Benegal directed English, August. He has written and is directing a political satire set in a fictional country, USSA)
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print.