Upamanyu Chatterjee's new 'separated at birth' novel, his darkest work yet, shows what a masterful storyteller he is
Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel reverberates with the cackle of the wicked witch. As much as Fairy Tales At Fifty, filled with twisted souls, brings bile to the throat at the actions of its characters, the humour with which Chatterjee writes his story also allows us, voyeurs into this cold, heartless world, to acknowledge our enjoyment at the telling of such monstrosities.
Chatterjee’s is a “separated at birth" story. The twins in this case, Anguli and Nirip, meet just as their 50th birthday approaches. It’s that age when one examines just how one’s precious life has been spent, and what that may mean, if anything, for one’s future. “You must tell me your past, all of it," Nirip tells Anguli, “so that we can then decide what to do about the future."
The twist of fate that has separated them is a kidney. Nirip is blessed with one missing kidney at birth, a fate that ironically results in him becoming the “impotent prince of a bloody rotten world". In other words, it is for this very reason that he, instead of his brother, is chosen to be adopted secretly as the heir to Pashupati, who deals illegally in human bones, skeletons and kidneys, runs a blood farm, cooks and eats the livers of newborn babies to prolong his youth, sells beggar children into adoption, and uses as his alarm clock a string of women whose job it is to fellate him into awakening at the crowing hour of the rooster. And later, as he gains a modicum of respectability by entering the business of hospitals and fake medicines, he starts planning his entry into the next stage of his criminal life: as a politician.
Even though the indolent and unwaveringly cheery Nirip—a collector of fountain pens and teapots—rejects the immorality of his father’s business, he can’t—won’t—give up the material comforts that it provides him. But by doing so, doesn’t he at some level also participate in the evil around him? So, broke, and hatching a plot with his half-sister Magnum to get himself kidnapped for ransom, and discovering by chance at the same time that he is not the biological son of his parents, that he isn’t the person who for 50 years he had thought himself to be, Nirip looks back at his life—how can he account for his past and how will he fare in the future? Was there, after all, some point to his life?
As for Anguli, he is the eternal wanderer who emulates Angulimala, the serial killer of a Buddhist folk tale who is famed for wearing the little fingers of his 999 victims in a garland around his neck. Much like his role model, Anguli “exhibited no greed… ate, drank, fucked… and only occasionally killed".
Chatterjee’s characterization of Anguli, the man with pure blackness at the core of his being, utterly bereft of humanity, is chilling. He kills not for a reason but for the sake of it, and he particularly “didn’t like leaving alive those whom he loved". He kills without thought, without feeling, and with the randomness that lacks logic or reason; for him no joy, he discovers, can ever exceed the joy of killing.
Indeed, there is a contemporary, familiar twang to other cases and issues that the novel echoes—the disquiet of the serial killings of children in Nithari, Uttar Pradesh, in 2005, the utter ease with which one can grab land by building a place of worship on it, the familiarity that breeds in us acceptance of blood farms and kidney sales and criminal politicians. Strange as it may seem while reading this fantastical tale, the unsettling world that Chatterjee builds in these pages is the absolutely normal, ordinary one that we live in, though perhaps not in such close proximity as Nirip and Anguli or the supporting cast in Chatterjee’s Fairy Tales At Fifty.
At 55 himself, is Upamanyu Chatterjee then on a quest of self-discovery too, like the twins in his story? This is a luxury afforded only to the privileged, he declares tongue-in-cheek in the middle of the tale, even as its principal characters journey along in their intensely perverse world in search of the Truth: “After several rounds of tea, it was agreed upon that money was crucial to solving the riddle of the point of the universe because without it, without those coins, cards, notes and cheques, everything—all speculation—fell flat. No beggar ever looked up at the stars and wondered why we are here. Even when his stomach was full, he gazed up at the heavens only to burp." The famous beggars of history too, like M.K. Gandhi, Chatterjee writes, could live so only “because there was someone hovering around them who would foot the bill".
At the end, is “living happily ever after" even possible in this dark tale? In a brilliant conclusion, Chatterjee points to the utter pointlessness of life, and how the more things change, the more they never change. In his fairy-tale ending, someone does live on, “unhappily ever after".
It’s evil, after all, that rules the world.
To read an excerpt of Fairy Tales At Fifty click here.