A city, in its alluring as well as hideous ways, often has different faces to present to different sets of people living within it. This was as true of Delhi in the late 1990s as it was of any other urban space or time period. Yet it’s the sense of the particular that has to seep in when reliving a tale of criminal depravity bordering on caprice, and the retribution set in a certain place and time.
Despite some patches of his taut craft in sizing up a locale and time, the failure to let a sense of the particular pervade his storytelling, almost as a subtext, is visible in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Villainy (published by Speaking Tiger). That is sad given that the author’s earlier novels, including his much-remembered debut novel, had excelled in narrative specificities.
In its outline, the plot of Villainy, woven in a reserve sequence that is typical of tales of crime and trials, is assuming and plain. Hence, it is far more challenging. Between the discovery of a dead body in the park of a tiny neighbourhood and the backstory of four killings, the novel tries to explore the dark and grey alleys of human impulses, social arithmetic, and responses – individual as well as institutional. Chatterjee populates the novel with an array of characters and events that, at times, resembles a cinematic potboiler, while also trying to leave social notes on what he sets out to tell.
In that frame, class disparities are mirrored in two key teenage characters: the gun-toting, foreign car-obsessed, rich brat Pukhraj, and his unlikely and brittle friendship with Parmatma, the studious, shrewd, and upward mobility-seeking son of a poor driver. The unequal terms of this negotiated bond and the effect of the class matrix on the chain of events – ranging from crime scenes to police stations to courts – underscores the plot.
That, however, should not lead to lazy exercises in reading between the lines and making connections between such portrayals in the late ‘90s with the immediate years of the liberalisation experience in India. Nemichand, the emblematic figure of affluence in the novel, is part of the old money heft, not the new breed of enterprise riding on the openings of post reforms India.
Besides the understated Pukhraj-Parmatma juxtaposition, there are other episodes that hint at the social distance stemming from the class chasm. For instance, when Nemichand, the wealthy jeweller who revels in his own profanities, regrets offering a drink to a low-ranking policeman when the latter uses an abusive word for someone else.
But Chatterjee is careful to not lose sight of the larger tale in the making – of the sinister criminal actions across classes. This can be inferred in some responses from central as well as marginal characters, albeit sporadically. At one point, the narrative pauses to register a fleeting take on the constituents of villainy.
“The principles of villainy and uncertainty appear to be beguilingly similar. They are both terribly all-pervasive, and further, one can never be fully certain either of what constitutes villainy, of whether it is not governed just as much as the principle of uncertainty by the four cardinal characteristics of time, location, movement and spin, and of whether it is not just as unstable, volatile and slippery, in short,” Chatterjee writes.
In some ways, Villainy also takes long detours to leave narrative notes on India’s criminal justice system, from police stations and prisons to the courts and the people tasked with running them. The novel has its moments in how the social hierarchies of these places, and the role of money as a lubricant of social and institutional practices, intersect with the lives of key characters.
In particular, the description of the unequal lives of prison inmates and the factors that shape how less miserably they stay there finds space. At times, this is also done with Chatterjee’s known scatological imageries. The privilege of having one toilet per five inmates in a cell, for instance, against 10 toilets per 300 inmates in the prison barracks is explained by a character’s take on what to expect in the latter: “You have to wade into the shit, wade ankle-deep, before you can even reach the toilet to begin sluicing it down. Often you don’t have enough water left for your feet.”
Even with rich detail on the working of the police apparatus and judicial proceedings, perhaps benefiting from the author’s firsthand experience as a former bureaucrat, these do not grow into substantial accounts. This is in part because of Chatterjee’s tendency to caricature people at the helm of affairs in a police station or a court, from station house officer Johi O to Judge Lodhi. One wonders whether the author, with a gift of bringing so many unforced moments of humour at the most unexpected of places in his earlier work, needed to resort to the lure of caricaturing.
That, however, doesn’t hold the narrative back from making some pertinent observations. One of which is, significantly, the media and the judges feeding each other attention-seeking quotes and spicing up judgements to play to the gallery in times of camera-friendly and soundbite-hunting court proceedings.
A challenge that Chatterjee possibly grappled with is recreating the period through which a major part of the novel moves – the late 1990s. It’s a period that isn’t too old to skip the scrutiny of memories of a large section of readers, nor too near to be completely present with all details. In recalling the Opel Astras and Cielos that accompanied well-heeled movements on metropolitan roads of the time, Chatterjee gets some slices of the period right.
However, minor slip-ups, even if it’s a quibble, do surface here and there. The circulation of Rs 1,000 notes in October 1997, as seen in the second chapter on gambling games at a fly by night hotel, is an anachronism. After being demonetised in 1978, the Rs 1,000 note was reintroduced only in 2000. That is one of the few lapses where the blurred fringes of a two-and-a-half decade old memory can be seen in the novel.
In being largely devoid of the author’s famed sense of the particular in mirroring a place, period and people, Villainy struggles in its narrative of dark impulses and side-notes of a social register. While its take on the making of the sinister is marred by the unstated working of morality as a plot device, the social subtext suffers from an abrupt drift towards caricaturing.
But warts and all, there are still sections of the novel that shine with Chatterjee’s trademark accuracy of observation and his charm of storytelling. That, however, can’t rescue it for too long on several counts.