Friday, June 05, 2015

Bangla Chini, fish fry: on Shovon Chowdhury's Murder with Bengali Characteristics

[Did this review for Open magazine]

It was once said of Saki that his humour writing was so intense it could induce literary dyspepsia: you couldn’t read too much at one go, because a pleasant version of reader’s fatigue would set in. I sometimes feel the same way about Shovon Chowdhury, whose 2013 novel The Competent Authority, a sprawling speculative fiction set in a dystopian future India, was one of the most singular achievements in our recent fiction – so inventive, so packed with funny ideas, that lesser writers may have tried to spin full-fledged stories out of Chowdhury’s parenthetical asides (such as the one about Bangalore having escaped being nuked because the Chinese had aimed for the airport region, figuring the city would be somewhere nearby!).

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Chowdhury’s new novel, located in the same 2030s world, sometimes reads like an elaborate outtake. Well under half the size of the first book, Murder with Bengali Characteristics examines a smaller section of the canvas, moving the spotlight from the Competent Authority-ruled India to… Bengal, which is now a protectorate of China. The plot centres on an old teacher’s murder in the Maoist-ridden Liberated Zone of Junglemahaland, and an investigation that leads Inspector An Li and his cohorts through the Protectorate’s messy political hierarchies (including a depressed Governor and a trigger-happy General). Meanwhile two businessmen bumble about trying to prevent China and India from going to war; it would badly affect their mining operations in Chhattisgarh.

The wry Chowdhury humour, on view from the opening paragraph, can be more than a handful for the reviewer who likes to mark funny sentences for future reference. (I gave up doing this after a couple of dozen pages, but there are hundreds of lines like this one: “Because [Information Officer] Crazy Wu spent so much time making knowledge disappear, no one knew more than him”) As a satire on national characteristics – and a comment on our stereotyping – this book reminded me of Zac O’Yeah’s Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, which was set in a Europe colonised by India. Much of the humour and tension in both novels comes from the cultural contrast between ruler and ruled. A passage in Chowdhury’s book, where the Chinese police unemotionally deal with a loud, profanity-spewing Calcutta crowd, underlines the difference (“Their movements were precise. They spoke very little. As usual, they took all the fun out of it. With the local police, on the rare occasions that they took action, there was blood and passion, the hurling of mighty curses, mothers and sisters invoked in vain, blows exchanged in anger. The lunge. The clutch. The heave into the van. There was a certain intimacy. With the Chinese, the whole process was soulless”) – though when it comes to private crimes like murder, we are told, it is the Chinese who are intimate while Indians don’t get personal. (“Chairman Mao taught us the virtue of using our own hands. In India, you hire someone. If he gets caught you take care of the family.”) Which makes the investigation a tricky business.

This is an outlandish yet very familiar world: one where an ancient leader has been kept alive and venerated decades after he had to be surgically removed from the chief minister’s chair (no, really – the chair had partially fused with his backside), where ideologies are defined in dire terms (“once no one has any fish, everyone will be equal. This is the basic principle behind communism”) and the essence of governance is that you must never let criminals out of your grip. A Maoist leader reads a sentient copy of Stardust in his jungle retreat. Drones hurl threats in ways that suggest they have been watching too many B-movies. The Chinese destroy Kali temples – not a good way of endearing themselves to the Bengalis – so they can end the “thug threat”. A car is allowed freedom of speech and a firewall may have feelings, but people aren’t encouraged to read; no software can translate the “high-flown” Ananda Bazaar Patrika anyway. And below the breathless lunacy of the premise, there is – as in the first book – a real sympathy for history’s undervalued “little people” who, with some luck, might be rays of hope in a despot-filled world.

So much of this is stimulating in theory, and yet, much as I wanted to love Murder with Bengali Characteristics, I was underwhelmed. Partly that may have to do with a prior expectation that this would be a murder mystery. But even if you aren’t expecting an Agatha Christie-like denouement, you may feel the book meanders. This is a collection of encounters, interrogations and pen portraits – all mostly done well on their own terms – but sometimes that feels like all it is, with each chapter being something of a standalone, only tenuously tied to its neighbours. There are a few too many people for a short novel, the narrative becomes diffused, and it isn’t always easy to keep track of who did and said what, or who reports to whom.

It doesn’t help that no character here is as delightful as the vulgar, malcontent policeman Ram Pandey from The Competent Authority, and no subplot as intriguing (or as moving) as the time-travelling one in the earlier story, where people with special powers find they can go back to, say, 1948 to try and prevent Gandhi’s assassination. There’s a danger of this turning into a mini-review of The Competent Authority, but what to do? Murder with Bengali Characteristics may have worked better if it had – in a shortened form – been published as an adjunct, a sort of “DVD extra”, to the first book.


  1. surely a line is warranted about the dope title appropriated from the age-old formulation of Socialism/Capitalism with Asian/Chinese Characteristics made controversial more recently, in 2011 by Zizek's crypto-racist analysis of Dengism?

    1. Not really, Saptarshi, but pleased to see you're still around, and still choking on your own bile.

    2. P.S I have not the slightest clue what " Zizek's crypto-racist analysis of Dengism" means - but you already knew that, I'm sure.

  2. I just think somebody made a mistake of calling it a crime novel, for starters. After reading The Competent Authority, it was definitely a let down. Probably would have been better to call it a satire.