Saturday, February 27, 2010

Morose humour; notes on an opening chapter

It isn't often that I want to jot down notes about a book after reading only the first chapter, but well, the first 12 pages of Upamanyu Chatterjee's Way to Go seemed to demand it. The chapter is called "Missing Person" (never was a title more apt) and it takes the form of a conversation between a middle-aged man named Jamun (whom you might remember from The Last Burden) and an obtuse police constable. Jamun has come to the local police station to report that his 85-year-old father has vanished from his bed overnight; the constable is asking him questions pertaining to the disappearance.

Chatterjee's recent work hasn't been to many tastes - his humour is often scatological, vulgar, gratuitously mean-minded to a point where you wonder if he's testing the reader's endurance, and remarkably preoccupied with human excreta (run his last few novels through Wordle and I'm fairly sure "turd" will show up in a healthy font size). I expressed my own ambivalence about his last book Weight Loss here, and the present post isn't intended as an endorsement of Way to Go (which I've only started reading). But I thought "Missing Person" was funny, not so much in a laugh-out-loud way but in a chuckle-hopelessly-to-yourself-until-you-choke-on-your-own-phlegm way. It's what you might call morose humour.

Like so much of Chatterjee's writing going back to English, August, this chapter is about how both time and common sense are suspended when bureaucratic procedure takes centre-stage. M
any things contribute to its effect. For example, there's the deliberate overwriting and over-attention to detail, as in the passage where the constable opens a register with "Bittoo" printed on its cover ("above the painting of a long-haired baby sucking its thumb with an adult expression in its eyes") and then begins "massaging" the stitching of the book's inner spine and doing sundry other things with his fingers until he finally locates a printed form containing the questions he needs to ask Jamun. (All this while an octogenarian might possibly be in need of speedy aid.)

Naturally, the interrogation itself is mechanically done, and shaped by the bizarre, illogical order in which the questions are printed on the form; there is no indication that the constable is capable of making a sensible connection between what he is asking and the information that has already been supplied to him. Thus, after Jamun has provided a full description of the situation and the missing person (his 85-year-old father), the constable shrewdly asks "Missing Person was Male or Female?" But what's even funnier is that Jamun answers with a simple, terse "Male". Much of the dark humour comes from our sense of his growing depression and inertia; he simply lacks the energy to jump up and start screaming at his sawdust-brained interrogator the way most of us would. Instead he glaze-eyedly observes the things happening around him, such as the wasp and the tea-boy entering the room at the same time.

Things get more surreal (and believable, for anyone who's ever been in a Kafkaesque cesspool of this sort - or, for that matter, anyone who's ever had to fill out a visa application form asking if they have committed genocide in one/many countries/continents). One question goes, "Did Missing Person thrash you or you him because of violent disagreements and tensions over your or his vices or addictions? Was the atmosphere of the house vitiated as a consequence?" and later, after the age of the Missing Person has been mentioned close to a dozen times, the constable asks, "Missing Person failed his school/college exams and therefore left home?"

By now Jamun is in a practically comatose state, reeling off dimly remembered sentences that he heard someone else say in a similar situation. When he replies "Such was not the case in the present instance," to a question, the constable nods approvingly; at last they are speaking the same language.


  1. I had gone to the criminal courts in Madras for a case (I'm a lawyer, practising mostly on the civil side) and discovered that you could buy a form for a special petition to excuse the absence of the accused at a particular hearing.

    The printed form leaves the reason blank. I wrote "He is unable to attend court due to an illness." I was instructed by a lawyer sitting next to me to change it to "He unable to present himself for the reason of illness".

  2. At a central govt. office in Delhi where I worked on contract a little over a year ago, I recollect having a discussion with the chief of the administration department on how much toilet paper should be supplied to our room by the admin. department

    We had gone there to complain about the neglect of contract staff by the admin department in providing supplies, but soon the discussion turned into "how much tp do you use" When the disucssion reached this point, we decided to agree to everything he said:-)

    Soon after this discussion, I made up my mind to quit.

  3. Given my tryst with courts, on reasons ranging from mundane to socialists, I wud say I have come to love Indian Judicial system, particulary when you shud be at the recieving end af it. every prawblum has an answer if yu have the right muny. (the 'O' key is nawt wawrking. I hawpe I cud recawunt yu sum mOre tales. Aur judicial system tells yu what the Gita cant. If yu have mawny, yu can buy happiness. yu can actually bargain t2

  4. Heh, I think this comments space could turn into a neat collection of stories about red-tapism in all its manifestations. Keep them coming, people - and who knows, I might even provide a detailed account of how my registered court wedding was repeatedly interrupted by an Iranian woman who flew into the magistrate's office squawking about needing her passport processed IMMEDIATELY.

  5. UC writes Dilbert for the Indian officialdom. The reason why it is so scary because it is all so true.

    Mammaries of the welfare state is still the best book I have ever read to come out of an indian milieu.

    Really looking forward to read this one. And to your further notes on this.

  6. Since Jai has given the go-ahead,
    here is another of my stories from the same office referred in comment#2

    I did not have a table or chair in the office for three months(at the time the office was spending tons of money to spruce up the head's chambers). I was told to "adjust" aka use the table/chair of persons on leave (and there were 2 people, on leave all/most the time). Finally, God heard my prayers and a day came when both the people on leave turned up and I told my boss I would have to sit in the lobby. The powers-that-be intervened and I got a table, chair and computer within hours.

    So, if you encounter a grumpy govt. servant, it may well be that they do not have their own desk/chair:-)

  7. nice post. thanks.