The Avenue of Kings | Sudeep Chakravarti
When a mighty tree falls,” Rajiv Gandhi famously remarked on the riots of 1984 that followed his mother’s assassination, “it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.” It is only natural, then, that the cover of Sudeep Chakravarti’s The Avenue of Kings, a set of three linked novellas, features a fallen tree—roots upended, barring the road (Rajpath: “the avenue of kings”) to India Gate. For this is when Chakravarti’s first, eponymous novella opens, on the day after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when young Brandy Ray witnesses the murder of a Sikh boy at the hands of a vicious Delhi mob.
In language that is brutal, acrid and visceral, Chakravarti gives us a series of characters, encounters and confrontations that together form a portrait of the pivotal moments (the death of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and the demolition of Babri Masjid) in the 1980s and the early 1990s in India. In the first novella, Ray, also the protagonist of Chakravarti’s earlier book, Tin Fish, is living in a squalid one-room tenement and is fresh out of college. Full of frustrated yearning, he is desperate to prove himself. He finds solace from frustration and the memories that haunt him in the arms of the beautiful Suya.
But their love, so strong and comforting in the first novella, begins to chafe in the second novella, The Cradle of Innocents. What is the Real India? That’s what Ray and Suya are searching for, and their quest to find it in different places tears them apart, as their country is torn apart. Ray, older and now a journalist—like Chakravarti himself—watches as the once young hope of India, Rajiv Gandhi, becomes embroiled in scandals, and corruption taints both politicians and the press.
In the third novella, The Well of Three Wishes, set in the time just after the Babri Masjid demolition, Ray grows increasingly unhinged as society around him is polarized, the country becomes increasingly divided, while Suya and him find themselves even more estranged.
Turning point: One of the book’s key events is Rajiv Gandhi’s death. AFP
There isn’t a dramatic climax, nor does the plot twist and coil to confuse and beguile us. Chakravarti’s premise—of an angry young man, seeking answers and coming into conflict with his society—is a familiar one. Nor does the romance between Suya and Ray offer anything new; for it plays out in an expected, predictable manner. The history against which Chakravarti maps out his stories is well-known to us, and holds no surprises for those who live in a nation shaped by that history.
Yet somehow, impossibly, Chakravarti’s book is greater than the sum of its parts. Chakravarti evokes—through the character of Ray, frustrated, torn, confused and full of anger, haunted by the ghosts of dead friends and dreams—the pain and experience of the larger national narrative. The language in the first novella is occasionally contrived and Ray is a little incomprehensible. Yet by The Well of Three Wishes, Ray is a fully developed character, whose motivations and impulses a reader can understand and sympathize with.
The Avenue of Kings: HarperCollins India, 299 pages, Rs222.
The idealistic fury and passion of Chakravarti’s characters would be ill-suited in the increasingly corporate world of today: The India that we live in today is far removed from the India of Indira Gandhi’s time. Yet, one can’t help wondering at the end of reading The Avenue of Kings—what transformations would Chakravarti’s characters take in a tale that chronicles our present age and what hidden truths would such transformations reveal? Perhaps Chakravarti will answer this question in another sequel, but for now, it is refreshing to come across a bold, impassioned work that seeks to remind us of the past and doesn’t shy away from asking the elusive, difficult questions that are as relevant today as in 1984.
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