Were someone from outer space to visit a city bookshop, he could be forgiven for concluding that most contemporary English fiction writers in India write for each other—or for readers who, like them, are urban, middle class and educated. Rural India hardly exists as a subject. Of the lower middle or working class, there are hazy glimpses and set pieces rather than compelling plots or characters. Petty bureaucracy—that vast domain of government babudom that rules, or rampantly misrules, the life of millions—is often treated with the kind of scorn or satire reserved for walk-on parts.
Amitabha Bagchi’s The Householder takes us deep into that murky labyrinth of lost files, ministry corridors reeking of urinals, backstabbing intrigues in dusty canteens and bribes of currency notes packed in mithai boxes. This is a world where unbendable official hierarchy is exemplified by Class I officers set against Class III stenographers, as well as their contrasting accommodations—large garden flats in Rabindra Nagar or poky quarters in Sarojini Nagar. Geographically close, the sarkari colonies are poles apart, depending on where you fit into the capital’s pecking order, even though their occupants are conjoined in a mutually beneficial cycle of corruption.
Naresh Kumar, PA to A.K. Asthana, IAS—addressed as Nareshji in the office and, deferentially, as Babuji at home—is a risen-from-the-ranks footsoldier in this army of clerks. As Bagchi’s novel rises to a crescendo and to a swift denouement, both men are in trouble, facing a departmental inquiry and suspension. They have fallen foul of the minister’s lobby by favouring building contracts to a powerful construction firm in Gurgaon. Both are on the take and in the mess together; both have bail-out strategies in place, though Naresh Kumar’s sense of disgrace is keener. “Asthana, when you worked under me, I taught you many things,” says an ex-minister consolingly to his IAS boss. “But...I forgot to teach you one thing. A ministry is called a ministry because a minister runs it.”
What lifts this narrative of corrosive power politics and graft to greater heights is Bagchi’s insight into Nareshji’s mind and milieu. By turns scheming and supplicating at work, loyal and responsible at home and inarticulate in love, he is plagued by conflicting notions of respectability and remorse. Bagchi makes you suffer his torments.
Naresh Kumar’s life is actually falling apart on several fronts. His daughter Seema, married to a mid-level magistrate, is being turned out of her husband’s home for being unable to conceive a child; his errant son Praveen, on night shifts at a call centre, is actually involved in a call girl racket; and at work he is consumed by inchoate longings for Pinki Kaur, the widow of a former colleague, herself faced by a difficult moral choice.
In lesser hands, such characters and situations could have dwindled into tragicomedy bordering on farce. Amitabha Bagchi, teacher of computer science at IIT Delhi, had a great success with his first novel Above Average (2007). His literary debts are to the Hindi novelist Shrilal Shukla and Urdu poet Bashir Badr. The Householder is a novel of brevity and force, one of the best this year.