Sunday, December 15, 2019

Agni Sreedhar and The Gangster’s Gita: the hitman as philosopher

(My latest Bookshelves column for First Post -- about a book by a "writer, editor and former gangster")

During a 2006 interview about his mammoth Bombay-underworld novel Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra told me that many of the real-world hitmen and gangsters he met during his research were deeply religious or philosophical, trying to structure their lives around core values. When Chandra wondered aloud how it was possible for such a person to put a bullet through the head of someone they didn’t even know, one gangster replied: "Upar wale ne uski maut likhi hai aur mera role hai usko maut dena. Main toh naatak mein apna role ada kar raha hoon." ("God has decided he has to die and my role is to bring him Death. So I'm just playing my part in a grand drama.")

That conversation, and Sacred Games’s depiction of the stoicism and banality of underworld lives (Ganesh Gaitonde casually mentions hacking an informer to pieces, returning home, eating “a little sabudane ki khichdi” and going to bed), came back to me while reading Agni Sreedhar’s The Gangster’s Gita. This slim book was first published in Kannada as Edegarike in 2004, made into an acclaimed film a few years later, and now we have a new English translation by Pratibha Nandakumar, who provides some context in her introduction.

Sreedhar’s life story makes for fascinating reading: he is a writer, publisher and critic, but also a former gangster who has written about his experiences in the underworld – notably in his autobiography Dadagiriya Dinagalu, which won a Sahitya Akademi award. The Gangster’s Gita is officially a work of fiction, but the almost documentary-like quietness of its telling and the nature of its story and principal relationship (not to mention that the narrator is named Sreedhar) leaves little doubt that it’s rooted in real-life experience.

This strange, compelling work hinges on Sreedhar being tasked to execute another hitman named Sona. It has to be done discreetly, of course – Sreedhar, his boss and a few of their men have to escort Sona from Bangalore to an isolated spot in Sakleshpur, where it will be easy to dispose of the body without attracting attention. But if this premise sounds like it has the makings of an exciting spy-vs-spy tale, that isn’t how it plays out. This book centres on a series of conversations between the two main characters. It portrays the mundaneness of a situation that most of us, from the outside, would not think of as mundane at all.

There have been many gripping stories involving bad guys in a verbal joust, moving between banter and philosophy, playing cat and mouse with each other – but those mostly tend to fall in the suspense or thriller genres; one expects twists, some action, a double-bluff or two. A few weeks ago I reread Jeffery Deaver’s fine story “The Weekender”, in which two men talk about souls and consciences and religion before indulging in a seemingly foolhardy test of faith, with the possibility of betrayal always on the table. Who will have the last laugh, is the question that runs through that story – and how will it come about?

The Gangster’s Gita is a very different narrative, not constructed around suspense as conventionally defined. There are little moments that appear to promise something exciting to come: an attempt by Sreedhar and his boss to get away from a police patrol on the road, for instance. But for the most part there is very little action, and a lot of waiting patiently for the right time. At one point, news comes that Sreedhar’s boss has been injured, and everyone gets worked up – until it turns out that what happened wasn’t an attack but something much more commonplace.

However, there is a different, subtler sort of suspense at play here: in the little detours and delays before the killing of Sona, which make Sreedhar more uncertain, even reluctant, about the task ahead of him; and in the insights we get into changes that may occur in the hearts of men inured to a particular way of life.

Around the same time that I read this book, I watched Martin Scorsese’s plaintive new film about the demythologising of the world of criminals and hitmen. The Irishman shows us underworld figures (played by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, whose long acting careers have contributed so much to our ideas about what gangsters look and behave like) sitting around in their pajamas, looking weary; in its final scenes we see a former gangster, aged and creaky, missing teeth, unable to even bite into a piece of dry bread.

The Gangster’s Gita is a similarly deglamorised, pared-down story about a hitman who knows he is doomed, but is stoical about it – and more willing and able to confront the situation, to talk openly about it and to live in the moment, than his to-be assassins are. To the extent that Sreedhar is disoriented by Sona’s behaviour: “I began to get slightly irritated. I could not figure out if it was because he was talking like a philosopher or because I was helpless even as he was talking about us killing him in cold blood.”

Sona tells Sreedhar stories – fragments of stories – from his life, leaving some things unsaid or partly said. He philosophises, expresses regret about some of his actions, and in the end, makes a request. And Sreedhar himself, in turn, reflects (though mainly to himself) about encounters with destiny and how different types of people (or different types of cats!) deal with it: do you try to escape the inevitable, or calmly walk into its embrace?

Attempting to find some clarity about the situation, he recalls Albert Camus’s existential work The Outsider, as well as the automaton-like mindset of Nazi soldiers who had been given orders to carry out unthinkable crimes. His own feelings shift from shame to contempt to scepticism, sometimes all at the same time. And all of it leads up to an ending that has a quiet, lingering sense of mystery and wonder. While this is an unusual underworld story, it is also in an important sense an inner-world story about two people – assassin and victim, or student and master? – briefly orbiting each other.

[Earlier Bookshelves columns are here]

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