Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee

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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.

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Sitesh Sen tried and failed one more time to fully understand what the muzzy indistinct female voice was describing about the timing of his train. It’s just the way the announcements were made at Howrah Station, with a shrill but unclear human voice trying to climb a sea of sounds across a creaking microphone. It didn’t suit his ears, ended up being just a gurgle of words that didn’t mean much. “And what was the need to have that funny jingle-sound at the end of each announcement?” Sen thought, “Like a dull doorbell taking off from the final incomplete word.”

Frustrated and flustered, Sen asked a man standing nearby about the announcement giving his train’s departure details. It didn’t help to know that it was four hours late. He was at the right place though, platform eight.