Ram Karan is a low-ranking functionary in the education department in Delhi. He supplements his pitiful salary by collecting money for a Congress loyalist, Mr Gupta. Of course, he siphons some of it away for his own use but then that is how "this" world functions. A widower, he shares his sad house with a widowed daughter, Anita, and her little daughter Asha. In a bid to forget his depressing domestic life, he goes to a whore or on a binge, drinking till he throws up. Disgusting though his lifestyle is, even more revolting are his memories of sexually abusing his daughter Anita when she was a child. Worse, he tries to pet his granddaughter and is caught out by his daughter.
At long last, Ram Karan undergoes such self-disgust that he turns into an obedient father. The boot is firmly on the other foot-for it is Anita who now tortures him with his shameful past and takes delight in his public humiliation. Yoked by misery to live together, they kill each other in a hundred small ways before Ram Karan's overworked heart finally gives up and he dies.
In Sharma's hands, Ram Karan becomes the stereotype of the kind of person we all like to hate. A slimy, corrupt babu who represents the lowest common denominator in Indian public life, he is not even accorded the dignity of a death scene. Somewhere towards the end of the book he disappears in a pool of shame and his daughters and son fight over the tawdry legacy he has left them. His presence pollutes every generation that he comes in contact with and in both Anita and Asha, we see signs of the same sickness that tortures Ram Karan's mind while he lived.
In the blow-by-blow (forgive the unspeakable pun) account of his unutterably depressing life, Sharma gives the reader a peep into one of those tatty colonies, with stinking latrines and rubble-filled "green" patches, that have changed the face of this once gracious capital. Or rather, his portrayal of it encourages the reader to create stereotypes of lives that do not live by the same moral code that "high-minded" Indians expect the disadvantaged to live by.
The novel is suffocating, not only because of the sickness it portrays but because it is not enlivened by any happiness that even the most deprived lives are entitled to. I cannot think of a single episode that provided relief from its dankness, which makes one wonder what the author had in mind as he wrote the book. If his purpose was to raise one's consciousness about the sub-human species that inhabit the crevices of corrupt public life, then what about the comic characters that could serve as a foil to his protagonist? It is a device that every tragic work has used with great effect. Bereft of any relief, the reader is likely to only plod through the book if he is a masochist or a reviewer.