By Suvasree Karanjai
Title: The Butterfly Effect
Author: Rajat Chaudhuri
Publisher : Niyogi Books,2018
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
(W.B. YEATS, The Second Coming)
The earth is doomed to be a ghost,
She who rocks all death in herself.
(Sophia De Mello Breyner, I Feel the Dead)
We all dream of a utopia, an ideal, the zenith of flawlessness and excellence. With the concept of utopia comes its inverse, dystopia, which lurks behind curtains with equal power to devastate and destroy. In recent times, dystopias have become an independent literary genre, a potent medium to envision and warn against catastrophes, a result of what could have started as an alternative futuristic ultra modern/utopian state. Rajat Chaudhuri’s “well-oiled” and polished novel, The Butterfly Effect,is a welcome addition to such tellings that aim to reiterate obliquely the oft-quoted saying: “With great power comes great responsibility” and to question whether we are ready to shoulder that liability.
The Butterfly Effect is a brilliant exploration of the local and the global, Calcutta and the world, in a post-apocalyptic state in the face of ultra-modernisation, totalitarianism and technologization.
Rajat Chaudhuri, an esteemed bilingual (Bengali and English) novelist and short story writer with a number of prestigious fellowships under his belt, has been involved with environment and development. His concerns are reflected in his earlier works (like Hotel Calcutta, Amber Dusk) as well as in his recent novel The Butterfly Effect (2018).
The title of Chaudhuri’s book bears subtle connections with Edward Lorenz’s concept of the “butterfly effect” in Chaos Theory which denotes “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.” Interference with nature may produce extreme and erratic changes in human-to-human and human-environment relationships. This kind of alteration, which may be called a ‘blunder’, can open the door to darkness, a void that knows no resurrection, that only leads to an unimaginable and uncontrollable self-destruction.
Chaudhuri’s bold narrative opens with Captain Old, an off-duty policeman driving his decrepit electric scooter through the city hummed by “the orchestra of the wretched” and illuminated with chains of pressurised puffin lamps. Captain Old is beaten and robbed off his vehicle by some wayside raiders, as he drives to pick up his guest, Henry David, from the railway station. Henry is the man who eventually stumbles upon the root cause and the ‘secret’ of the plague that has contaminated the continent with forgetfulness, lack of clear cogitation, pale skins, drooping eyes, and old age. The novel expounds a great truth in simple words:
“Disease is also a gift. A gift which we could do without. It is the sap of life flowing through nature leaking or spilling out because of our disjointed living.”
Like most dystopian fiction, and especially that of Philip K. Dick, the acclaimed American science-fiction writer, Chaudhuri too creates an interfering state where life is under surveillance. This bureaucratic space is infested with bioengineered ‘dishbabies’, ‘eternal teenagers’ who have been begotten ‘in petri dishes and not in a human womb’, and the ‘SUPREME GUIDE’ and ‘BENEVOLENT LEADER’ who ‘knows all and sees all’.
The novel departs from other cyberpunk fictions as it interlaces multiple narratives together – the journey of the detective, a group of lost Indian tourists in Korea and genetic scientist Tanmoy Sen’s dedication to experiments in a laboratory in United Kingdom to solve mass hunger and malnutrition. The story goes back and forth in time and space to weave the disparate threads into a whole. Liz Jensen, an English novelist, rightly mentions that the narrative takes a ‘rollercoaster ride’ across borders of fantasy and reality. Each thread emits the thrill of mystery and adventure with a spine-chilling ending as we are swiftly transferred to a fresh sequence of events, set in newer settings, thus illustrating the butterfly effect.
The ‘missing’ and the loss of hair of Detective Kar resonate the ‘miss’ and disappearance of the link between humans and nature. A sense of absurdity of all human toil and technological innovations weaves the novel together. Under the mask of an intertwining tale of mystery, suspense and romance, the narrative questions intelligently the future of a cyber world or a technologized globe. As Henry says, “Mindless development, exploiting nature to the hilt in the name of a better future, (is) often driven by the hubris of science.”
Though the narrative appears to be little lengthy at times and lacks enough humour, the enthralling music of Chaudhuri’s lustrous language takes the reader into a trance that lingers long after the book ends. In fact, the long and grim narrative potentially builds up a world where ‘life (is) without colour, pain, or past’(especially that of the lost tourists); a life locked in the dark violin chest where no music flows. Undeniably, the novel is a possible enquiry into the dark abyss that can be created if science is maltreated. The essence of this narrative lies in exposing how man’s existence can be devastated in the pursuit of unmanaged advancement and capitalisation.
The dystopia designed by Chaudhuri reminds us of the probability of mankind stepping into an ethos where, as the famed avant-garde playwright Eugene Ionesco said, “That’s how we stay young these days: murder and suicide.” This book is indisputably an important contribution to the world of cyberpunk fiction and a must read for all.
Suvasree Karanjai is a PhD candidate in the Department of English, University of North Bengal, India. Her reviews and poems have been published in ‘Wasafiri: International Contemporary Writing and Kashmir Lit’ among others. You will find her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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