In his acknowledgements to what has aptly been called "quite simply the novel of the decade about India", the author says, "most of this story has been ripped out, naked and quivering, from the headlines of the past decade. It’s been a depressing decade." But as this extract —Chapter 42— would show, the novel is set in the future. The era of the Man of Steel is over after he engaged in an ill-advised war with China in 2025 (He publicly fed some dhokla to a child believed to be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama). The Chinese nuked large parts of the country. Due to minor corruption at lower levels in the purchase department of the defence ministry, Indian nuclear missiles turned out to be duds. Bombay has been obliterated; Bengal has seceded and is now a protectorate of China; the Maoists have taken over much of what remains. The southern states are a distant and tranquil place that nobody has visited in years. It is now the mid-2030s, and a lady whom we all can easily recognise has become Prime Minister in what remains of Delhi, but she has very little power. Real power vests with a deranged bureaucrat called the Competent Authority, who heads the Bureau of Reconstruction —"expanding rapidly because the Chinese had left them an awful lot to reconstruct"—which has subsumed all government departments under it "until further notice, or the completion of reconstruction, whichever came sooner".
The Competent Authority was gazing adoringly at the PM while she went through the file he had just placed on her table. He had placed it slightly out of reach, which had forced her to bend forward and allowed him to take a deep breath of her perfume. He was holding his breath for as long as he possibly could, savouring her heavenly aroma and going slightly pink in the process.
The PM suppressed a shudder and thought wistfully of her formidable ancestress, who was famous for being able to reduce men to mush with a single glare. A British interviewer who had dared to question one of her decisions had received such a tongue-lashing that he had never had an erection for the rest of his life. People across the nation still spoke in whispers in front of her photograph. Several of her ministers had worn adult diapers throughout their ministerial careers, and in some cases, beyond. She had been frequently mocked at the beginning of her career, and she had carefully noted each and every mocker. When the time came, she had systematically and ruthlessly crushed each and every one of them, doing it so thoroughly that not even their memories had remained to mock her; till one day, when she looked around her, all she saw was a sea of quivering sycophants, and that was pleasing to her. Well, there was good and bad in everyone, and over the years, people had come to have rather mixed feelings about her. Personally, the PM remembered her as affectionate, but busy. The one thing she was sure of was that she wouldn’t have been sitting here being sniffed by a civil servant.
The PM flipped through the file, trying to lean back in her chair as far as she possibly could. It was the Alternate Chair proposal, which her PA had already heard about from Mehta and passed along to her, but she pretended she was seeing it for the first time.
He hadn’t really come about the Alternate Chair proposal, of course.
He needed her help to create a diplomatic incident with China. But he was good with women, and he knew that, being a woman, she would be entertained by a discussion about furniture, which would enable him to enjoy her invigorating presence just that little while longer.
The PM looked up at him, relieved to see that he was no longer having one of his usual fits or seizures.
‘So what do you think of the Alternate Chair proposal?’ she asked.
‘A shining example of innovation in governance,’ replied the CA.
The Alternate Chair proposal was a brilliant new scheme to help the government grow smoothly. While the need for more civil servants was growing by the day, space was a constraint. One of the bright young sparks in the CA’s office had come up with the excellent idea of hiring two bureaucrats for every chair, and having them come to office on alternate days. This way, each government office could have twice the number of officers.
The CA had been enchanted by both the simplicity and cost- effectiveness of the proposal. His only misgiving pertained to the chair-sharing aspect. After all, the power of every government officer came from his chair. If each officer was given 50 per cent less access to his chair, would this weaken him in some mysterious and unforeseen way? Would enough power, knowledge and authority still rub off onto his bum to enable him to perform adequately?
It was a question that had caused the CA several sleepless nights, but in the end, the prospect of doubling his empire at a single stroke had been too delicious to ignore.
‘Do we really have the money to hire so many extra officers?’ asked the PM dubiously. ‘Why not reduce them? Couldn’t people work a little harder instead?’
‘No, no, madam,’ said the CA, aghast at this unholy twist to the conversation. ‘Our people work long hours under inhuman conditions and face frequent assaults from the public. How much more can they do? The Bureau of Reconstruction in particular needs to expand, as I foresee a lot of reconstruction in the near future. A few other ministries need people too, such as tourism.’
‘But we don’t have any tourism!’ protested the PM.
‘All the more reason for us to prepare thoroughly for when we will,’ said the CA. ‘However, we could make a few cuts in the Foreign Ministry.’
The CA was extremely annoyed with the foreign secretary who had been unable to mould the world according to his wishes, despite repeated instructions and frequent guidelines. The foreign secretary’s excuse was that the foreign minister had never travelled more than two hundred miles from his hometown of Nagpur, and thought Tokyo was a type of attaché case. The CA had pointed out that several US presidents had been very similar and you never heard any of their staff whining about it. The PM signed the file and waited for the CA to get to the point. The General had already called her and warned her that the CA was up to no good, and practically begged her to buy him some time. She had promised to try, but once the CA was riding a hobbyhorse, unhorsing him was no easy task.
‘I want you to insult the Chinese,’ said the CA.
The PM raised an eyebrow.
‘Am I allowed to do that?’ she asked.
The CA simpered coyly. ‘The PM is allowed to do whatever she wishes,’ he said.
‘And why do you want me to insult the Chinese?’ she asked.
‘Who am I to want you to do anything?’ said the CA, humbly. ‘It is the nation that requires this of you.’
‘Okay, then,’ said the PM, ‘why does the nation require me to insult the Chinese?’
‘The Chinese have committed acts of telepathic aggression,’ said the CA, ‘as a prelude to military action. The evidence will soon be in my hands. We must show them that we are not afraid of them by insulting them. We must cause them to lose face. Once they see we are fearless, they will be too scared to attack. We will then be free to finish off our little local action against the Protectorate. The Chinese must be kept on the back foot. On behalf of the nation, you must be obnoxious.’
‘Did you have any specific insults in mind?’ asked the PM, fascinated.
‘Of course, of course,’ said the CA, glad to see she was coming around, ‘I have made a list, so you can choose your favourite.’ He took a small piece of paper out of his pocket, and fished out his reading glasses.
‘The first option, and possibly the best, is to unveil a statue of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in front of India Gate,’ he said. ‘I have had a statue made especially and kept ready, for just such an occasion. Your love for art and culture is well known, so you would come across as a truly cultured person, while insulting the Chinese at the same time. It’s a very nice statue. He looks very holy.’
‘But the last real Dalai Lama died years ago. The new one only lasted a few days. Dharamsala was one of the first places they blew up in the last war. And only about 20 per cent of the people in Tibet are Tibetan these days. Do the Chinese really care any more?’
‘Oh, they very much care,’ said the CA. ‘For one thing, the pacification of South Tibet is running behind schedule. Joy has not been unconfined.’
‘What other insults do you have on your list?’ asked the PM.
‘Well, we could sabotage their bid for the Olympic Games. They desperately need another one. People are getting restless.’
‘What else?’ asked the PM.
‘We could send a strongly worded accusation, alleging that the Maoist rebels in our country are inspired by Chairman Mao.’
‘Aren’t they?’ asked the PM, now genuinely puzzled.
‘Yes, of course they are,’ said the CA, ‘but we’re not supposed to say that. We’ve pretended there’s no connection for sixty years.’
The sheer variety of schemes was impressive.
‘Did you think up all of these yourself?’ she asked.
The CA smiled modestly. ‘I may have helped with one or two. Which one do you like best?’
‘None of them,’ said the PM, crushingly. ‘Why don’t we just support independence for Taiwan?’
The CA was shocked. Such haste was unseemly.
‘They would launch a nuclear strike immediately. It is the one subject on which they will brook no argument.’
‘Well, I don’t like any of the others,’ said the PM. He could ask his hellish minions to cook up some more.
‘Madam,’ said the CA, ‘I must insist that you choose an insult. The nation requires you to do this. I will wait here quietly while you give the matter more thought.’
The PM sighed. The General had asked her to hold him off, but when did the CA ever listen to anything she said?
‘Let’s do the Dalai Lama thing then,’ she said, judging that this would be the least offensive.
The CA beamed.
‘So now that I’ve agreed, let me get this straight,’ asked the PM, ‘you think, if we put up a statue of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese are going to be too scared to declare war?’
‘With the Chinese, anything is possible,’ said the CA. ‘Besides, we don’t want to fight a war. We just want to show them we are not afraid, so they don’t attack us.’
‘Shouldn’t we be afraid? They’re about fifty years ahead of us!’
‘Evolution is not everything,’ said the CA, cut to the quick. ‘Plus, we are on the verge of full reconstruction!’
‘So basically, we want to prevent them from attacking us by doing things that will provoke them into attacking us?’ asked the PM. She could feel her head spin, which was how she always felt at some point during any meeting with the CA.
Despite the allure of her fragrance, the CA was beginning to find the PM annoying.
‘Madam, trained professionals have considered these matters long and hard before reaching these conclusions. I will get the Dalai Lama’s statue polished and inform the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. They will let you know when and where you will be required.’
He waddled off grumpily, clutching his list. The nation deserved to see better leaders. There was no question. When the time was ripe, he would reveal himself to the public, in all his glory. The process had already been initiated. The phrase ‘Competent Authority’ was now featuring far more regularly in notices, billboards and press releases. He would have to avoid anything overtly dictatorial, of course, like an oddly shaped moustache, or a throne. But the wheels were in motion. He had momentary pangs at the thought of betraying his beloved, but if she was going to be annoying, then she deserved it. He closed the door behind him with a bang.
So now the CA had his diplomatic incident, thought the PM, and they were all one step closer to the edge. Fat lot of good she had been. The General would be ashamed of her. But at least she had managed to talk to Bijli Bose, using an untapped line at the Bengal High Commission. As usual, he had been full of suggestions. There were others she could talk to who might help her come up with ideas to thwart the CA’s plans.
He could smell her all he liked, but the Competent Authority was going to discover that this rose had thorns.
Shovon Chowdhury is a Delhi-based amateur humourist. His blog, shovonc.wordpress.com, has been widely condemned. In his spare time, he does advertising work for clients who cannot find anyone cheaper. His grandfather ran away from Dhaka to escape Japanese bombing in 1945, not realizing that the war was about to end, and arrived in Calcutta just in time for the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946. These shared family experiences have left him deeply averse to sudden movement, which is why he has lived in Delhi for the last twenty years.