Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam
Title: The Assassination of Indira Gandhi
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019
The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019) is a collection of short stories on different themes and motifs by acclaimed writer Upamanyu Chatterjee. Winner of the prestigious Indian Sahitya Akademi Award and the French Officier des Arts et des Lettres, his debut novel, English August: An Indian Story, was made into a highly successful film.
The title of his new book, The Assassination of Indira Gandhi, is at once striking, for it echoes a dark chapter in 20th century history, the assassination of one of India’s most iconic prime ministers and the social tensions that followed within the country. The title aptly sets the tone for the stories that are a tour de force of the trials and tribulations of modern India’s journey. This assortment of twelve short stories covers diverse themes and settings, each one of them, delving into the issues that strike at the heart of the emerging idea of India.
The opening story ‘History Lessons’ is about British diplomat Sir Thomas Roe’s visit to the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. It is a masterful tale of the quintessential ‘East meets West’ story, illuminating the meeting of two worldviews, a prequel to colonization that engulfed the subcontinent and its residual effect in this era of globalization. ‘Othello Sucks’, beautifully etches the ridiculous drama of life in a middle-class family in Delhi, where Shakespeare and the English language pervades questions of race, class, morality and gender in Indian society. The universality and locality of human perceptions and misperceptions is astutely captured by the author.
‘Bombay, 1984’ through the life of Jamun, a middle-class man, explores the excitement and mundaneness of love and lust, the anxiety and ecstasy of parenthood. Chatterjee uses words astutely to highlight the dialogue between desires and maturity. There are stories like ‘Three-seven-seven and the Blue Gay Gene’ dealing with the politics of sexuality in Indian society; ‘Foreigner’ literally going into the unreal “incredible India” experienced by only foreigners; ‘Can’t Take This Shit Anymore’ vividly paints the life of untouchables and the ironic changes in their lives. ‘Sparrows’ dwells on nature as providential and man as increasingly artificial and indifferent to all things natural. ‘Robert Heimric, Welcome Back’ revisits time and changed identities, possessions and vocations as the protagonist visits his hometown, a German village which lost its one hundred and thirty children to the vengeance of a rat-catcher.
The crisis faced by the classmates of a brutally murdered girl is depicted in ‘Girl’. The victim is brutally murdered at her home in South Delhi. The media, the police, the administration, the law and society depicted in the story jarringly resonate with echoes of darkness that reverberate in the reality that surrounds us. In ‘The Killings in Madna’, Chatterjee fictitiously presents Madna as a slice of cynicism amidst hope to reiterate the flaws of the administrative system in India. The final story, ‘The Assassination of Indira Gandhi’, wraps up the book with an intense story of a young Sikh who listens to the news of the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and his complex reactions.
In this collection, Chatterjee creates a visual impact with his choice of words. The use of language as a medium to communicate the ethos of the times we live in is particularly interesting. Though words from different eras have been used to recreate different periods in history and the themes these stories touch upon spans centuries or decades or even the recent past, each one of the narratives is stunningly relevant to our times. As in his other works, Chatterjee’s use of metaphors is artistically crafted and his choice of words is prudently laid out. The humour is mostly dark but wittily executed. An element of surprise adds to the zest of the stories which are often imbued with a deeper meaning.
The dramatic arc spans a variety of emotions and issues from simple to the complex, criss-crossing landscapes and lives of both rural and urban populations, bringing together the concurrence of hope, joy and sorrows in human lives.
Chatterjee manoeuvres to successfully blend fact and fiction in these stories to highlight the absurd and bizarre in our lives. He captures questions around death, disease, identity, poverty, love, loss, assault, race, caste, class and coming of age in all its complexities and profundity. Sometimes, philosophical abstractions find voice in as in ‘Sailing to Constantinople’, where he ruminates, “What is a journey without the imagination?”
He leaves us with a message or a thought, often one of hope and optimism amidst the chaos and turmoil that surrounds us. The stories belong to readers as much as it belongs to the author. The book is definitely a contribution to contemporary literature and must-read for all connoisseurs.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English literature and communication skills at the Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. She is also a freelance copy editor and copy writer. Settled in the western shores of the Arabian Sea, she loves Nature besides reading over a hot cup of tea. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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