The Competent Authority | Shovon Chowdhury

Horrid laughter

You can’t change the past," says Pintoo, a 12-year-old boy with one hand but jaw-dropping superpowers, at the end of Shovon Chowdhury’s first novel, The Competent Authority, “but you can change the future".

This profound, if somewhat obvious, knowledge is given to him by Banani Chatterjee, a schoolteacher on the run from law—which, in this case, happens to be embodied by a deranged and bloodthirsty policeman, blinded by rage after his butt is nearly bitten off by a dog he was bribed to assassinate.

Charmingly self-assured and ruthlessly funny from the start, The Competent Authority tempts the reader with the illusion that fiction indeed has the power to turn back time and make amends for the sins of our fathers. In the process, it offers, in the best tradition of the burlesque, other ways of envisioning history by stirring a heady cocktail of the real and the imagined, and proving, as all successful satires do, how laughter can spring from the darkest corners of our souls.

Indian writing has had remarkable political novels in English. From Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) to Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995) to Jaspreet Singh’s much-anticipated novel Helium, coming up later this year, the list is long and distinguished. But apart from a handful—Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August (1988), Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel (1989), or, more recently, Manu Joseph’s Serious Men (2010)—not much has appeared in satirical writing that is as memorable.

The Competent Authority: Aleph , 454 pages, Rs 495
The Competent Authority: Aleph , 454 pages, Rs 495

Chowdhury’s quickly allusive prose bristles with a sense of humour that brings to mind some of Franz Kafka’s tales and parables, deceptively bleak but always redeemed by their vestigial irony. There is wizardry in Chowdhury’s writing, reminiscent of Rushdie’s Shame and G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr, and the pungent humour of 19th-century Bengali satirists like Kaliprasanna Singha—though the writer I remembered with a pang as I read Chowdhury’s book is the now-forgotten Aubrey Menen, who explored ideas of nationalism in a way that remains quite unique.

The Competent Authority opens with Hemonto Chatterjee, a “lowly minion in the Central Bureau of Investigation", hiring Pande, a sub-inspector, to kill Samrat, his neighbour’s dog, whose incessant barking has been ruining Mrs Chatterjee’s peace of mind. The setting is, ostensibly, India, in what may not entirely be an unforeseeable future.

Nuked by China (“after the Dalai Lama was reincarnated on Indian soil and the prime minister had publicly fed the child a small piece of dhokla with peppermint chutney") and ruled over by a ludicrous Orwellian tyrant called “The Competent Authority", this is not the country as we know it, but could well come to look like this if some of our favourite conspiracy theories ever turn out to be true.

In Chowdhury’s version of India, “most of Delhi and Bombay, along with large chunks of UP and Punjab" have been wiped out—Punjab by mistake, after missiles aimed at Islamabad had missed their target. The Americans have destroyed Pakistan; Bengal is an autonomous Protectorate lorded over by Bijli Bose, a much-feared comrade; Darjeeling has been sold off to the Chinese; and Delhi is besieged by a class war between the inhabitants of Safdarjung Enclave and “Shanti Nagar", a ghetto run by a eunuch called Shanti Bai, on the fringes of the city.

There is a threat of fresh attacks by the Chinese, suspected of having planted “telepaths" (mind-readers) among the Indian forces, which has resulted in sporadic crackdowns on Chinese restaurants by the government—or the “gorment", as hoi polloi prefer to call it—in Delhi’s Defence Colony. The politicians and bureaucrats are barely-disguised portraits of real-life figures. These glimmers of recognition and the mirth of serendipity are more than enough to make you want to turn the pages.

Under such circumstances, little Pappu Verma, son of a wealthy industrialist, manages to blow off his hand in an unfortunate accident. This calls for a visit to the Bank of Bodies (BoB) and the mutilation of Pintoo’s good hand to replace Pappu’s missing one (one of Chowdhury’s many genius inventions, the BoB is an institution where organs and body parts of the dead are preserved or, as in Pappu’s case, snatched from the living to meet the demands of the rich and maimed. But the public have also grown sick of excessive cosmetic perfection. So, for instance, the contestants of the Femina BoB Miss India Universe contest “were being marred with little imperfections" now. The winner of one such contest, revealed on television to Hemonto, has no less than three breasts).

The grafting of Pintoo’s hand on Pappu’s stump leads to some dramatic changes in the behaviour of both boys—the former turns into a miracle-causing messiah, a destroyer of everything that stands for the Establishment, while the latter begins to commit acts of atrocity that he would otherwise never have (such as squeezing the nether parts of a VIP at a school function).

Chowdhury’s achievement lies in creating a hydra-headed plot around these two children, and then deftly manipulating its various tentacles, which threaten to assume a life of their own. He throws in a fake godman (called Dharti Pakar) for good measure, has a hilarious interlude on the Commonwealth Games (which are played only in the virtual realm), and invents a vocabulary that resonates with our times (“Kalmadi", for instance, is colloquialism for 100 crore).

In the course of his chase for the telepaths, Hemonto manages to get himself teleported by Pintoo to pre-Independence India and is given the responsibility of preventing the assassination of M.K. Gandhi. Accompanying him on this journey is Ali, the last of al Qaeda, who wears a T-shirt with an image of Bob Marley on it that says “Ja-Rules". Ali’s duty is to find H.S. Suhrawardy but he ends up training the revolutionaries in sophisticated modes of terrorism. Finally, there is Pande, who is sent back to 1998 to stop the Pokhran blasts but can just about put up a giant sign in the middle of nowhere saying “HELLO AMERICANS! NUKULAR BOM WILL EXPLOD HERE!" before meeting an unceremonious end.

It is impossible to find a dull moment in The Competent Authority, which, in spite of its heft, manages to move nimbly. Occasionally, there are passages that seem a little self-indulgent, when the agility of the author’s imagination brings in details and layers that were unwarranted. Sub-plots seem to spiral out of control, characters get forgotten, and loose ends are tied a little awkwardly. With more severe editing, it could have been a slimmer book, and maybe an even better one for that, but as it stands, it is one of the most original works of fiction to have appeared in India in a while.