Book Review | The Angel’s Share
India is in the precise socio-economic position to glorify success. Poised for growth (ignoring, for a second, the recent bad news in macroeconomic indicators), the government, most parents and school principals shower loud praise on the young people doing their part to drive India’s growth. It paints a pleasant picture: The old generation and the new, bonding over shared goals, getting along just swimmingly.
But sometimes, at times not always accounted for, things get heated.
Satyajit Sarna’s maiden book, The Angel’s Share, gives voice to a generation desperate to be heard.
It is the story of how, when and why Zorawar Chauhan got disillusioned with corporate law. It is the story of the bright student who arrived at the best law school in the country not knowing exactly why he was there, proceeded to underperform (courtesy soft and hard drugs, sex, alcohol, brotherhood, football, and an unflinching belief in the Socratic method as a way of life), yet managed to swing a plum job in corporate law, with all its attendant perks and drawbacks: fat pay cheque, long hours and strictly-business-class travel.
The Angel’s Share: HarperCollins India, 244 pages, $14.99 (around Rs 800)
It sounds a bit familiar. Fresh-faced, idealistic lawyer finds himself doing meaningless gruntwork and wonders where his life is going. It is reminiscent, perhaps, of Mohsin Hamid’s slim, racy The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is about the disillusionment of a Pakistani who finds the world of global finance well-adjusted to the injustices all around it. But what sets The Angel’s Share apart is the protagonist’s voice. It is the voice of so many young executives I know.
“All the while, you’re thinking, like a Radiohead song, this is not happening. This is not my life. This is a dream, an illusion, a carefully set up forgery,” Zorawar laments to the reader. “I don’t like talking about people who are becoming partners elsewhere. I don’t like the way you talk about travel destinations and the resorts there as if they were equivalents. Shopping is not a sport. Movies are not a night out. Not while you’re still alive.”
Based closely on Sarna’s experiences at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, with characters based on his actual classmates, the book is, on one level, a campus novel. It revolves around students getting stoned, having sex, giving exams and charting big futures.
On another level, it is a brilliant campus novel, with characters etched so clearly you can recall with fondness the exact types: the indomitable striver, the badass who’s a killer with the girls, the genius to whom everything comes naturally, the slightly aloof, insecure onlooker (who makes for a very human protagonist), and that rare, dangerously brave type who lived life so beautifully you almost knew it couldn’t last.
But on a fundamental level, the reason the novel is more than a realistic, nostalgic account of the trials and triumphs of college life is because it feels like it could be the hashtag of a generation. India’s college students and 20-somethings are groping for meaning in a country juggling First World aspirations and Third World problems. The questions Sarna raises in the book feel timely, if not urgent, partly a reflection of a country coming into its own: Is it actually possible to live life on one’s own terms in a country that needs productive citizens? Is college about securing a lucrative job or about self-discovery? And have we lost sight of what it means to live life beautifully, boldly, and youthfully in a world that runs on capital inflows and investment?
At law school, Zorawar, whom everyone knew as “Zoju”, and his batchmates were taught to believe that law was like a beautiful woman who held all the answers to all the questions. She could teach the willing and assiduous aspirant how to think exactly, how to live ethically, how to solve deep and pressing problems. Zoju tells the reader (and it is as if Sarna himself is speaking), “We were promised the keys to the kingdom, but were never even told what the kingdom was.”
But corporate lawyering is servile stuff, and the king is money. Zorawar lets loose the primal scream of a generation too often touted as a demographic dividend or slandered as a demographic nuisance; young India will not be moneyed dirtily:
“I can feel my anger pound cool and crystallize in your ears, while you smile and nod. No, I’m not a foodie. What the fuck is a foodie? I like good food. But I’m not mesmerized by these kebabs. I know a hole in the wall in every part of this city where you can find kebabs made better than this, and served with more heat and spice and desire. I like sweating when I eat. I like washing my hands at a tap. I enjoy walking around in crowds. The world outside is petty and poor and dirty, steeped in blood and semen and sputum. But it is beautiful.”
Poverty can be glorified easily from the outside. And here, Sarna, writing through Zorawar’s voice, falls into this trap. Dingy bars and roadside kebab stands are the ambit of college students who have the luxury of muddying their hands and then washing them off. The young idealist’s relationship with capitalism, especially crony capitalism, is a messy and guilt-forming affair; is it possible to be a part of the system without being complicit in its externalities?
The answer does not lie in drug trips or rhetoric. But for the young, for the Left-leaning, for the confused, it often times does.
The Angel’s Share is about self-discovery. It is about an individual coming to know himself, a generation coming to know itself. It is a story not about overnight changes, but complicated becomings.
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