By Manisha Lakhe
The Great Indian Publishing Machine has been churning out Indian writing in English for years now. Most of it is culture-apologetic, where authors explain how idlis are “steamed rice dumplings”, and other “literary” novels are plain pretentious pomposity where the authors suffer from a colonial hangover, write paragraph after convoluted paragraph to show how clever Indians can be in writing a “foreign” language. But when you come across a story that casually embraces the English language to tell the story from gun country, which is completely Hindi centric, is a rare thing of joy.
The author Prashant Yadav is not just telling us a story in The Jeera Packer, he is telling it with love. Love for the language as well as for the characters.
“The car moved as slow as the thoughts in the professor’s head” followed by: “Why would he and his son be thrashed with chappals and thrown into jail?”
No apologies for using Indian colloquial English where people do tend to put “me” first as in Hindi (“main aur meri tanhaai” as an example). But you forget this and enjoy sentences that describe the traffic jams you have experienced in person.
The immediacy of the events in the book is remarkable. The author takes you to wherever the characters are. In the car with the “lal batti”, inside the politician’s den, and even to the workshop where the Bullet is treated like god.
If you’ve met a motorbike aficionado, or are one, you will love everything about the Bullet in the book. Not just Abdul and his passion, his philosophy (the motorbike lads don’t just drive with passion, but live the philosophy unique to each rider, and the author seems to knows that), but also how graciously the protagonist teaches his son to ride his Bullet when he realises that he may be going out in flames. The son Abhishek has to walk back with the bike… If you have ever attempted to ride that Bullet, that God of a bike, then you’d have complete sympathy with the son, who has to walk the beast back because it just won’t start for novices…
The writer’s disgust for politicians and their shenanigans seems so real as if it were personally tasted. B-grade Bollywood flicks often show politicians in a bad light and top movie directors agree that Indian politicians are horribly selfish and unscrupulous. To read it in fine detail (penned with a great sense of humor) is truly wonderful.
“Agarwal Babu, who owned more than half the sugar mills in the state, pulled up his heavy frame from the chair and asked, ‘What is this Twitter and Facebook?’”
In the same election campaign strategy meeting, Yadav ji from Sitapur is chatting away on WhatsApp. When asking for his attention, the chief villain (Dada) realises:
“Dada gasped. That was the third one. WhatsApp. Yet another diabolical descendant of Western technology that too in green colour.”
Of course, suggestions come free and fast in that strategy meeting. You cannot help but chuckle at how real this sounds, because you know the country’s politicians are clueless about English media.
“Send a delegation of the journalists on a Europe tour.”
“Give out awards.”
Not just the protagonist, but the secondary characters are also neatly etched. Lal Mani, who is the protagonist’s former sidekick is now a very important man and not a secondary character. He’s clever too. The protagonist visits Lal Mani’s office to gauge if he has any inkling about the protagonist’s search for a sniper rifle and goes away thinking he is safe. But Lal Mani has guessed that the protagonist has not simply dropped in for tea and kaju barfi, and sets the cops to keep an eye on his “friend”.
Madhurima, the professor, Jaya the protagonist’s wife, the orange-bearded guy, Abdul the bike guy, his chap Chintu… their place is perfect in the universe the writer creates.
The pace of the book is blistering and the writer keeps you involved in the action. Written almost like an action movie, the only thing that strikes an odd note is the romance track. The men, both the jeera packer and his friend Lal Mani are shown to have an almost tender side. The sexual side of the jeera packer especially seems odd because the character smells of spice, is out of shape, is despondent and chronically unhappy. That’s fine, because he needs an idea of “every man needs a Taj Mahal” planted in his head to get some interest back in his routine life. For him to have an active, imaginative sexual side just seems odd. Same thing with Lal Mani, a man who has far too many political machinations festering in his head. It seems unlikely that he would want an intellectual conversation with or satisfaction from a woman. One tends to think that such men would just simply satisfy any lust with just a body rather than engage in conversation with a woman who has a fertile mind. In fact, Lal Mani just comes across as an asexual machinations expert who probably does not sleep at all and probably plays tennis late at night to get tired and get to bed.
That apart, the book is simply a great read. You start with the politics and go through guns and girls and elections and drugs and political inheritance without a slowing of the narrative. You are not allowed to rest or put away the book until it is over. And although you kind of guess that the protagonist will be saved, you don’t guess how. There are no loose ends for anyone to look back and say, “But whatever happened to that person?”
I do not agree to how the political heir apparent suddenly consolidates his position, because if your brain is addled with drugs you probably just want to be left alone in the corner. But I’m told violence and drugs are partners, so who knows. Also too many clever lines about slow traffic made my “writer trying to be clever” antennae protest, but then when the author handles his material with a lot of intelligence you forget these small complaints and finish the book.
The title of the book may not make you choose the book instantly, but the gun on the cover intrigued me. And I’m glad for it. Looking forward to another book by Prashant Yadav now.
The reviewer is a writer and poet. She is the founder of Caferati Writers Forum. Her book ‘The Betelnut Killers’ was published in 2010. Currently, she teaches communication and creative writing at KC college, Mumbai and Harkishan Mehta Institute of Media, Research and Analysis, Mumbai.