Remembering Shovon Chowdhury: Power, and man's infinite capacity to abuse it, was the writer's great subject
Through his books and op-eds, Chowdhury parodied bureaucratic doublespeak, the Bengali obsession with Durga Puja pandals, the idiosyncrasies of middle-class India and pretty much anything else that took his fancy.
The writer and adman Shovon Chowdhury, author of the comic novels The Competent Authority (2013) and Murder with Bengali Characteristics (2015), passed away on Thursday night, 25 February. As friends of the late author revealed on social media, Chowdhury had been fighting pancreatic cancer for the last year or so. Apart from his novels, Chowdhury’s satirical op-eds were widely read. He ompetent Authority, Chowdhury’s first novel, is set in a dystopian future where parts of India have been annexed after a nuclear attack by China. Most major Indian cities have been damaged beyond recognition (except Bangalore, which Chowdhury says is mostly unhurt because the airport is nowhere near the actual city; the attackers were confused). The Chinese have bought Darjeeling and allow Bengal (ruled by the wizened old Comrade Bijli Bose) to exist as an independent Protectorate under their supervision. America has nuked Pakistan off the map. Delhi is in a state of unending civil war, thanks to the mohalla-level struggle for resources between Safdarjung and the infamous ghetto called ‘Shanti Nagar’.
And the titular Competent Authority, a despotic bureaucrat with a Napoleon complex, rules India with an iron fist, “the only man in the country with the power to make notations in his own file”. That last line tells you something crucial about Chowdhury’s style — like a lot of his best one-liners it’s only half a joke, since most middle-class Indians are intimately familiar with the ‘bureaucratic black hole’, the dreaded twilight zone where hopes, dreams and passport applications go to die (or at the very least, hibernate). In other words, Chowdhury trusted the Indian reader to be a long-term sufferer, and yet retain the sense of humour (even if nihilistic humour) required to joke about it. This seemingly precarious balance is, if I may, a very Indian rasa. It’s the reason why several early comedic triumphs on Indian TV also deployed this tonality: Flop Show, Office Office, Zabaan Sambhalke et al.
The Competent Authority is chock-full of memorable characters, wherever you look: Pande, the paan-chewing cop whose mercenary instincts are matched only by his fondness for the rubber truncheon, or Pintoo, the super-powered child who slowly becomes the focal point of the story. When Pintoo’s hand is taken by the Bank of Bodies (a monstrous establishment that steals the limbs of the poor to sell to rich amputees, rich accident victims and so on), the eventual recipient Pappu Verma starts indulging in all kinds of anti-Establishment activities (in a memorable scene, Pappu injures the VIP at a school function by squeezing his testicles really hard).
Another thing which I loved about Chowdhury’s writing was the enthusiasm with which he spoofed his own culture (ie Bengali culture). That he did so during an era where India grew increasingly insular and the space for dissent shrank with every passing year makes it all the more significant. Consider this passage from Murder With Bengali Characteristics (a spin-off of The Competent Authority), where Chowdhury skewers Olypub on Kolkata’s Park Street, one of the cornerstones of Bengali nostalgia. That line about a 70-something employee being “too young to be a waiter” at Olypub still has me snorting every time I read it. It’s funny, it’s true and it’s the kind of exhausted reprimand that only genuine affection can lead to.
“They took a moment to look up fondly at the sign, which was still crooked. The doorman was inside, in the corridor, slumped in a chair. He was in his seventies, too young to be a waiter. It was a sore point with him. He ignored them as they entered. No one had tipped him in decades. He was nursing his resentment well and biding his time. They climbed the rickety stairs. The stench was like a fog. The air was full of smoke and intellectual banter.”
Chowdhury’s great subject, ultimately, was power and man’s infinite capacity to abuse power given the opportunity. In the world of The Competent Authority, for example, teachers are afraid of their rich students because of the power their parents wield over the Governing board. But at the same time, the children’s excesses have reached such a comical high that these parents have also (unofficially) authorised teachers’ usage of rubber truncheons against them. In a horrific early scene, a sixth-grader is groping a female classmate (having pinned her against the blackboard) when a timely truncheon to the back of his head saves the girl from further assault.
Comically over-the-top violence is therefore not just sanctioned; it is tacitly encouraged. Parents know that “they’ll soon run out of schools” if they disallowed this level of violence against their even more bloodthirsty children.
Because of occasionally disturbing (and yet, never unfunny) segues like these, Chowdhury’s novels were, as the critic Nilanjana Roy noted on Twitter, ahead of their time. Should the health of Indian democracy deteriorate rapidly in the years ahead, I suspect we’ll all find out just how far ahead of the curve Chowdhury really was.
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