A mess foretold: Reading Mammaries of the Welfare State amid a pandemic

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel is a satirical portrayal of the whims and rituals that mark bureaucratic and political responses to an epidemic in nowheresville Madna.

ByAnand Vardhan
A mess foretold: Reading Mammaries of the Welfare State amid a pandemic
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It was in December 2000 that Upamanyu Chatterjee’s The Mammaries of the Welfare State was published. The satirical piece of fiction was read as a sequel to his 1988 debut novel English, August. Two decades later, the imperative of wide state intervention in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic has ensured the sequel has gained renewed currency. Today, it can be read in a different, and immediately familiar, light for its satirical portrayal of the whims, rituals and time-hardened attitudes seen in the bureaucratic and political responses to the epidemic-hit fictional district of Madna.

The sequel had a formidable predecessor. English, August, which introduced us to the journey of the confused IAS probationer Agastya Sen, was relished for being one of the defining coming-of-age novels in modern Indian writing with some seeing it as an Indian answer to JD Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye. However, it was more than a remarkable bildungsroman because even the readers who couldn’t identify with the lonely disorientation of a young civil servant were held together by the novel’s authentic description of the way the state apparatus worked in nondescript Madna. “Attentive to the particular,” that’s what writer Akhil Sharma, in his introduction to the novel’s 2006 edition, notes as the most distinctive virtue of Chatterjee’s debut.

In several ways, Mammamies had no such ambition. It was a light read, out-and-out. Yet even in its scattered plot and meandering narratives, as critics have pointed out, Chatterjee brings relentless detailing to his satirical gaze on the working of the government, bureaucracy in particular. Probably, looking back at his body of work, the switch to satire was meant as a point of departure from the dense The Last Burden, the most pensive of his works of fiction published in 1993. Be that as it may, the novelist’s parallel profession as a bureaucrat can’t be missed as he unfolds layers of official India, from the state secretariat in Mumbai to the district offices of nowheresville Madna. In between, it offers slices of mofussil India, and of powerful and self-important men and women who run it.

Coming back to the present, while the state response to Covid is national, it does have elements that resemble the novel’s description of the response to a relatively local plague in Madna. Chatterjee perhaps drew on his observations of how state governments, including in his IAS cadre state of Maharashtra, had reacted to the 1994 Surat plague. Mirroring the confusion, denial and obfuscation that marked India’s initial response to the Covid pandemic, the state secretariat in Mumbai and the Madna administration hilariously reveal their know-all smugness and preoccupation with procedures and spin when the epidemic breaks out.

The cast of characters supervising the plan of action in Madna anticipated the chaos that unfolded at many district headquarters when Covid hit this year. While old notables such as Menon resurface in the state secretariat, Madna’s administrative turf is taken over by new lords such as Bhupen Raghupati, the chief revenue divisional commissioner, whose prurient obsessions aren’t nearly as striking as the “rhino-like thick skin” he has developed against the banality of public affairs. More significantly, Agastya, the newly appointed collector of Madna who had eight years earlier served in the district as trainee assistant collector, is content as a cog in the gigantic machine now. In moments of reflection, though, he still unravels the farce of state welfarism, saying, “I feel grossly overpaid for the work that I do. Not the quantity, which on certain days can be alarming, but the quality. In my eight years of service, I haven’t come across a single case in which everybody concerned didn’t try to milk dry the boobs of the Welfare State.”

To replicate communication in government offices, Chatterjee regales us with the exact officialese and even uses the formats of notices, letters and memos as literary devices. Some of the symbolic policy measures like changing names of ministries with new acronyms might find uncanny resonance in the current regime. “He changed its name to the Ministry for Heritage, Upbringing and Resource Investment – HUBRIS in brief. At a subsequent press conference, he asserted that the new name was more affirmative, focused, thrustful and forward-looking,” that’s how the change of the name of the Ministry of Culture, Heritage and Welfare finds a passing mention in a cryptic acronym.

The political class, including the prime minister, who pays a visit to Madna during the crisis, the chief minister, and some local hopefuls for the Madna Assembly seat look at the epidemic through their own prisms, with the left-leaning motormouth Bhootnath Gaitonde and almost-radical Raichur only adding to the precarious political choices. The news media – the fictional State of Times and Dainik – finds mention for its reporting, underreporting, quirky reporting, and commentary on the plague as well as the affairs of the state. A particular quirky bit of chronicling of the epidemic is reserved for a news agency, which in the midst of a health emergency, devotes its energy to tracing the history of epidemics to an ancient time.

“In different parts of the country, people reacted differently to the news of the plague in the district town of Madna. In Madna itself, the chief divisional commissioner, on scanning headlines in The State of the Times, said hmmm...In his later years as a civil servant, he had come to prefer ‘hmmm’ to interesting and I see.” This is how the divisional commissioner is introduced in The Mammaries.

This could have been a tale of many Indian districts in 2020 if Covid hadn’t hit on a national scale. Not that the response has been very different in many district offices. Imagining Covid as a malady affecting each district separately evokes memories of reading The Mammaries 20 years ago with Agastya Sen trying to make a sense of what’s unfolding.

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