Monday, June 18, 2012

The Householder by Amitabha Bagchi

Bagchi was my senior at IIT Delhi.  He had this irreverent streak in him, and stories abounded of him being an outspoken critic of pedantry and of unjustified silly tradition.  He was quite sarcastic and was known to be a linguistic bully, with his jokes and sarcasm sometimes remaining un-understood.  I was the target of his sarcasm as well, when he created a tongue-in-cheek "Harman Fan Club", "Harman" being this nerdy hacker who spent his days and nights in the Computer Center doing nothing but tinkering with computer networks, with free software and with devising ways of getting around limitations on internet and mainframe use.

I was pissed at this "fan club" phenomenon, with people composing poems (limericks, rather) and not-so-subtle innuendos about me and my nerdy ways.  Pertinently, Bagchi was a well-read and literate asshole, not easy to retort to.  He was a well-rounded mofo and me and him used to have rounds of jibes and put-downs.  He usually won.  But I was not one to admit defeat easily.  To get back at the "fan club" members, I cracked their passwords and accounts and drained their CPU quotas.  Revenge of the nerd, so to speak.  I think he disbanded the fan club after that.

This essay is not about Bagchi, though, but about his second novel, The Householder, which is anything but sarcastic, and which I recently had the pleasure of reading.  He has been incessantly plugging his book, and that of his missus Ratika Kapur (that one titled Overwinter) on his poor Facebook friends, but what is a little shameless plugging when it is such a good book, eh?

And it is a good book!  I wish a lot of people read it, and that it becomes a bestseller.  It could even be adapted, without much difficulty, to become a screenplay for a movie.

Most IIT and IIM brand novelists write about young adult themes: college, ragging, nerdy romance tales, awkward flirtation and cheating at exams.  IIT and IIM students are the Ivy League folks of India, and like watching a "London Paris New York" kind of masala movie, people buy such novels in a flurry, curious to know the beginnings and college lives of these modern millionaires and entrepreneurs.  3 Idiots, a movie based partly on Chetan Bhagat's "Five Point Someone" was a huge hit in India.  Bagchi's first novel ("Above Average") was of this kind as well, though perhaps a better specimen of this ilk.

Interestingly and quite surprisingly, on the flaps and covers of his second book, he does not mention his IIT background or his present status as a computer science academician at IIT Delhi.  That was the first hint to me that the book might have nothing to do with the usual IIT/IIM bromance or chick-lit, but could be an entirely different kind of novel.

And how different it indeed is!  This is not a novel about young people: it is not about girls and boys and people who have yet to chart their paths, it is about men and women whose trajectories are more or less set in life, and whose predicaments are due to invisible limitations on their thoughts and behavior.  It is a novel which explores fences, divisions, bondage and limitation, not freedom and choice.  And because society and civilization is about limits, this is a novel not about individuals, but about a way of life and about a certain cosmos of tradition and transgression.

Individual characters in this novel serve as reflecting mirrors of social mores and of choices which they make but which are mostly made for them.  Their truly free acts are few and far between, and that is a deep truth about human beings that Bagchi is able to explore here.  We are a bundle of influences, with free will being more of an interesting illusion.  Most of the novel is about conversations and about normal gestures and mannerisms.  But Bagchi effortlessly makes us understand where those are coming from.  It is a study of a society through behavior, with the novelist focusing on the behavior that reveals something significant about that society.

A cup of tea going cold or the reading of the menu of an upscale restaurant is a simple event, so is the averting of one's eyes or the involuntary smirks or clouded eyes.  But Bagchi's skill is in weaving something significant about the narrative through these seeming trifles.  Unlike many authors, he does not merely offer detail for the sake of it.  Like Chekhov, each detail has a meaning.  There is nary a loose strand.  It is a very well-crafted and a rich novel, offering easy delights of interpretation.  Bagchi doesn't complicate things beyond easy comprehension.  You always know what is going on, even if the final outcome remains hidden.  The narrative is sometimes elliptical (Naresh, the protagonist, has memories and hopes, after all) but as a reader, one is never puzzled or confused.

A lot of our decisions and actions spring from somewhere below our conscious reasoning.  Most of our sub-conscious is a somewhat consistent mess of social imprinting, our upbringing and a knowledge of one's place in the social ladder.  The exploration of these social and cultural themes: of marriage and in-laws, of the salaried versus the business class, of male responsibility and female concern, of desire and withholding, of authority and subservience, of patronage and obligation, is perhaps the purest pleasure of this book.

Bagchi does at times use the device of a big-brother talking aloud about the characters and their acts (much like Ashok Kumar did at the end of each episode of "Hum Log") but it doesn't rankle, this "voice-over" blends in with the narrative.

It is too easy to go into a metaphysical or scriptural context of being a householder versus a renunciate (the four traditional Hindu ashrams, or stages, of life), and thankfully Bagchi avoids this easy trap.  However, there is almost no mention of religion, of comfort in a higher power, of karma or of piety and sin when the characters are faced with a social or moral predicament or obstacle.  Perhaps it is because the situation never becomes too hopeless for the characters to turn to these opiates.

That is perhaps my only minor gripe about this novel.  The situations and predicaments are all resolved without too much of a struggle, all almost at the same time.  The denouement feels a bit over-convenient.

I was left hungering for more details about the childhood and youth and parents of Naresh and Arti.  Perhaps the exclusion of those details keeps the novel more focused on the present.  And perhaps, it could be a comment that a middle class Indian adolescence is rather uneventful and canonical, being tightly controlled and regulated.

Bagchi comes out as a humanist.  He does not believe in evil people or in malice.  I don't think I disliked any character in this novel at all.  Even the character of a corrupt corporate middleman (Khanna) or of a quaint mother-in-law is softly sketched and humanized for us to feel that they are not essentially bad people, but are responding in perhaps the only way they know.  This is a novel of kind and simple people, people who are somewhat sensitive and do not act in ways or who blurt out words which they later regret.  I find it a little subtle when it describes the Delhi-wallas' interactions (I find the average Delhi-walla to be quite in-your-face), but that subtlety, even if a tad unrealistic, is quite enjoyable.

As a novel about an Indian middle class family, it does not dwell too much on the burgeoning knowledge economy or the explosion in media presence or of consumerism.  It stays focused on the family, and in a good way.  Naresh, the man of the family, is a natural householder, and only rarely struggles with the existential fact of his responsibilities.  He never wonders or ruminates about the limitations of society or of Indian culture, or even about the philosophy of monogamy or the biological imperative of childbearing, but then, this is not a philosophical novel: it is a social one.

The Householder is a pleasant glimpse into the simple joys and struggles of a family man, and as it ended, it made me faintly smile and bless the protagonist and his family, as well as be grateful to the author for bringing this warm and emotional world to life.  Well done, Mr Bagchi.  Congratulations!