Book Review: The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi
by Parvati Sharma
Until page 42 of The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi, I wasn’t sure where the book was going. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can stop you properly getting into a book. Then, on page 42, this happened, and I decided I didn’t care where it was going – I was happy to be on the ride:
At a glittering party, as men and women walk ‘about the lawns, in languid self-possession’, Madhav Tripathi meets Jonathan Carry, an English author of, evidently, some literary clout. They hit it off, and Carry offers to introduce Madhav – who’s written a coming-of-age novel himself – to his agent. ‘That would be wonderful,’ says Madhav – and that, we think, is that. But, no.
‘Jonathan Carry nodded and then, instead of leaning back, he sat up straight in his chair’. Innocently, Madhav takes the opportunity to admire the Englishman’s good looks, his polished skin and piercing eyes – oh, and the golden crown ‘he now saw perched on his gold hair’.
The seconds tick by.
‘Carry held his position, with the static authority of a sculpted idol. Madhav understood what was expected of him, just as he had understood in his childhood, when brought before his grandfather and asked to perform a traditional farewell…. [T]he difficulty, then as now (though lesser now than then) lay in squaring one’s dues with one’s dignity. Madhav was conscious of the importance of not ‘prostrating before the white man’, the pathetic affliction of so many of his countrymen…. The solution he hit upon was a brief bow, with the right hand extended in the direction of Carry’s feet, but really nowhere near. As soon as the gesture was done, he knew it was exactly right. Carry, reanimated, sat back at ease.’
I laughed out loud at this – not just at the humour, which is sharp and sly as a knife in the back, but also from the shock of it. It couldn’t have, it didn’t really happen. I had to look up from the page, to reorient myself.
Aditya Sudarshan’s first book, A Nice Quiet Holiday, was a very enjoyable detective story in the old style. There was a murder, a house full of suspects, an investigator with an eager assistant, and then finally, a clear answer. Persecution is his third, and it couldn’t be more different.
In a language deliberate, measured, almost old-fashioned – it reminded me a bit of Arun Joshi’s prose in The Strange Case of Billy Biswas – Sudarshan presents scenes and emotions that are anything but. So much so, it’s hard to know where and how to begin talking about it.
Still. Madhav Tripathi is a young civil servant with a beautiful girlfriend. They both repose their faith in modernity, progress, secularism. Madhav lives in a comfortable apartment, drives a humming blue sedan, and goes to parties where people talk cheerfully about ‘the ennui of our lives’. To borrow this month’s meme, he is an Adarsh Liberal; and though he mourns how ‘We live in the nineteenth century here, in India’, he also believes himself protected, because ‘at least we have our set, right? We have our friends.’
So when, one evening, Madhav is abducted – by a new recruit at Outlook, no less – and then allowed to flee, both for seemingly no reason, Shivani and Madhav suspect their natural enemies, the rising forces of illiberal Hindutva. A conclave is summoned, attended by the usual suspects. There is Vinay, rich, cultured and brutal, taking ‘savage bites of buttered bread’; there is the towering, unflappable Secretary, calmly charting the country’s course; there is the angry leftist journalist, S. Krishnan; the pragmatic businessman with limited English and unlimited funds, Atul Pradhan; and the brash, controversial young filmmaker, Danesh Khan.
Friends with such cachet will surely make short work of his enemies, or so Madhav thinks. But the world Sudarshan has created is not so easily negotiated. Yes, it’s just familiar enough to make you grin woefully, sometimes in self-recognition, but it’s also entirely off-kilter. The skewing begins softly – that brilliant bit about Jonathan Carry; Madhav making a note-to-self to buy blinkers and fit them on his maid so she’ll stop gazing judgementally at his girlfriend; Vinay’s ‘castle’, typical of ‘some rich Punjabi businessman’ and thus quite anodyne, but fitted with ‘dank stone dungeon… from where their came a soft splashing, a quiet snuffling, and, at the moment least expected, a great thrashing in the dark, the crush of tremendous jaws, the visage of a monstrous reptile’.
There are crocodiles lurking beneath Punjabi Baroque, and why not? Guests at a party, puffed up and important, begin to fly, and it seems perfectly natural that they would. Slowly, Sudarshan tilts his lens further askew, until the real and fantastic are so entangled, one will crumble without the other. The blurb describes it as ‘hallucinatory’, but I’d call it the hyper-reality of dream, with its own certain logic, which you grasp only in fleeting moments.
Persecution is a thriller, so I don’t want to reveal too much of what happens; but I think I can say that the surprises are not only in the twists and turns of plot, or in accumulating dead bodies. For all its pace – and Sudarshan certainly keeps things moving – this is a thriller that demands to be read slowly. The prose, so calm, often shimmers with memorable literary flourish: debaters in a TV news programme are like ‘birds trapped in a room with the windows closed’; Madhav, surrounded by his tormentors, sees ‘a passing glint of moonlight… reflecting off each eye, like a mallet tapping on a xylophone’. And, most surprising of all, as the narrative seems verging into abstraction, Sudarshan offers some utterly unselfconscious passages on love.
All novels are arguments, in essence: characters are witnesses, the author juggles prosecution and defence and is often also judge, though in rare cases this honour may transfer to the reader. The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi is, perhaps, an argument about arguments – with whom do we disagree and how, how truthfully do we listen, and how willing are we to have those most difficult arguments, the ones we endless defer, with ourselves?
This is an ambitious, sometimes perplexing book, and a strangely visceral one. And, in the end, it does what good books should do: unsettle.