Book Review: The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian by Upamanyu Chatterjee
Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee
Title: The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2018
Some book titles are a giveaway. Given the political climate in India today, with so many conversations centred on the subject of meat eating, one might be forgiven for assuming that The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh book, a novella, is a satirical take on contemporary India. In English August(1988), and in The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Chatterjee’s pen is acerbic, and educated-middle-class-privilege tipped, displaying a wit that wafts out of the 1970s generation in mainstream Delhi University. The temptation is to assume that Non-vegetarian presents more of the same. It does not. It is a sombre story, set in a small town (Batia) in early post-Independence India, and told with uncharacteristic restraint.
The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian features Agastya Sen’s father (who we met in English, August, writing peremptory letters to his ennui-stricken son), and hearkens back to an older milieu, both in terms of the frame, and in the person of Madhusudan Sen, ICS, sub-divisional magistrate in the small town of Batia. The murder of six people who Sen considers friends, or the murderer that sparks the tale of revenge, present little mystery. The suspense is built by the narrative that unfolds from the edges of the grim event and the role Sen plays in giving shape to it over a period in time with issues swiveling around death penalty. Unlike his spiritually dispirited son from the celebrated debut novel, in this somewhat less ambitious novella, Sen is self-possessed, intellectually restrained, committed to the world in which he enjoys the trappings of state power, and a steadfast friend.
On the other side of the moral scale you have the suspect, Basant Kumar, driven by desire to eat, visceral, almost animal like, and stolidly plodding through life. If Sen has his arms wrapped around the high table of the law and the legal system, Kumar is the humble servant who understands only so much, and must slowly, and with an unmoving patience, accept the terms of that law. And yet, this is no morality tale, no fabulist pitting of good versus bad that you discover among South American writers.
Chatterjee’s prose is measured in this only novel written ‘out of service’, as it were. The legal aspects of the story, as also the actual legal orders and juridical pronouncements, peg down the narrative onto the level of ordinary lived experiences; it is never allowed to soar into the abstract. This deliberate restraint, the almost bureaucratic check on the deployment of language and ideas is Chatterjee’s particular style. You feel he can take the story a little beyond, but you know as you turn the pages of the book, that he will not.
Chatterjee took early retirement from the IAS, India’s premier bureaucratic service that enjoys an elite status. Chatterjee’s self-assessment is characteristically modest, when he refers to himself in the third person in the back cover. “He spent over thirty calm and undistinguished years in the Indian Administrative Service; during this time, he wrote six novels – when no one was looking. He retired (early and honourably) in 2016 to devote himself full time to running the household.” His understated mode of writing is itself a stylistic thing, reminiscent somewhat of the remarks senior bureaucrats mark on the margins of files – they don’t say much, but they do determine where those files end up! Within that understatement there is a quiet commitment however, to the idea of decency, and the desire to do the right thing.
Between Sen’s Cutty Sark and single Goldflake cigarette, and the surreptitious beef stew that he has allowed to be smuggled into his bungalow that sits next to the temple compound (and therefore unofficially designated vegetarian only!), he states to his murdered former employee’s brother Arif: “Your brother was a most discreet, helpful and efficient colleague. I shall miss him terribly.” While his commiserative language appears starved of emotion, his commitment to justice is anything but that. This interplay, between dry formal conversations and text (there is an actual post-mortem report that you are required to read in full, not to mention numerous extracts from judicial pronouncements) and the underlying tension between life and death, gives Chatterjee’s book its structural depth.
The real question remains trapped in the tension between between life and death, between loyalty and conduct, and indeed between desire and choice. All of these binaries dovetail onto Madhusadan Sen, ICS, and the final choice he makes. Even without letting the story take flight, which is the paved way to great writing, Chatterjee plucks at the legal, moral, ethical and philosophical battles that revolve around ‘Capital Punishment’ and pivots the larger purpose of his novel around it. Whether you are satisfied or otherwise with the denouement will be determined by your own moral compass. But that question is for the day you turn the last page of the book.
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
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