The Householder | Amitabha Bagchi
Amitabha Bagchi could easily have been viciously funny about the characters of his second novel,The Householder. After all, the middle-level bureaucrat, steeped in stereotypical petty-to-middling corruption and well integrated into the cash and favour-lubricated processes favoured by India’s babus, is grist to the mill for black humour. In his own imitable way, Upamanyu Chatterjee has done it twice over, first in English, August: An Indian Story and then in The Mammaries of the Welfare State.
But Naresh Kumar, aka the householder—father of the quintessential married daughter and wayward son, husband of the oh-so-familiar wife chosen for him all those years ago, and now a depot of doubts, despair and desire for a colleague (most inappropriate, but there it is)—is not an outsider like Agastya Sen. He has no ironic outlook on his existence and the futility of effort. In Bagchi’s hands, he is a complete insider who seeks to play the system without the slightest self-consciousness or qualms.
But not because he is immoral. On the contrary, Kumar is keenly aware of his dharma—his responsibilities as a father and husband—and that he must use his influence and power to secure his family’s happiness. At this stage, a comedy of manners, or what is referred to as “family drama” by television professionals, could have been on the cards. But this is where Bagchi’s vision as a novelist becomes evident, as he effortlessly elevates the story into the realm of the dilemma for the householder as dictated by Indian tradition: when to shed the superhero’s cape of being the domestic provider—economically, physically and psychologically—in order to retreat into a life in closer communion with the inner self and the afterlife.
The Householder: Fourth Estate HarperCollins), 239 pages, Rs 399.
But wait. Don’t imagine that the outcome is a philosophical journey. Instead, like the best writers do, Bagchi simply tells his story about Kumar’s family and colleagues, which is an utterly absorbing one. The larger issue is stirred in so well that its flavour imbues the narrative without standing out separately. As with all memorable novels, only after you have finished reading the story—a culmination that leaves you unhappy that it’s over—do you confront the choices that the householder, any householder, must make at some point in their lives.
In continuation of his refusal to tread the path of satire, Bagchi draws his characters with gentle, compassionate strokes. Even amid the utter immorality of their acts, they are as hard-pressed as you and I to simply survive everyday life, and more sensitive to the softer aspects of existence than you and I can hope to be with our deadened metropolitan senses and sensibilities. Almost miraculously, they are all human, rising above the animal instincts of instant fulfilment of desires.
The Householder makes old-fashioned demands of the reader: to get involved with the people, to will them on their way, to curse at the mistakes and smile at their achievements. Astonishingly, not to judge them.
It is in capturing the helplessness of the Indian forever seeking a slightly better life—not just for themselves, but also for their children—that this novel pulls at the heartstrings without the least bit of sentimentality. The story in here is many-hued but not gaudy, complex but not complicated, and carries within itself just the right degree of wish-fulfilment that raises it above the lack of pattern in real life.
The writer’s eye and ear for authenticity are in remarkable evidence. Every setting is described in meticulous but not tiresome detail, and the dialogue is pure joy because although the words are English and the sentences are grammatically correct, the idiom is uniquely small-town-north-India-transplanted-to-Delhi. It’s the neatest possible way to skirt the problem of writing in English about people who obviously don’t conduct their conversations in that language.
With Above Average, his first novel, Bagchi had promised great things ahead. The Householder proves him to be an assured writer after only two novels, and, perhaps more important, an insightful reader of the human condition as well.
Arunava Sinha translates Bengali fiction into English. His forthcoming translations include Wonderworld And Other Stories by Sunil Gangopadhyay and The Rhythm of Riddles: Three Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries , by Saradindu Bandopadhyay.
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