Scoundrels of new India
Shobhaa De's new novel 'Sethji' is a rattling good read
Long before chronicling urban India became intellectually fashionable and literary tomes were written on the slums and high-rises of Mumbai, there was Shobhaa De. A pioneer in the usage of chutneyfied English, she is said to have coined terms like 'Garam Dharam' and Zeenie Baby when she was founder editor of the iconic film magazine Stardust.
In a novel writing career spanning over two decade, De has ventured boldly into the bedrooms and soirees of urban socialites and bored housewives, revealing their sexual escapades, class aspirations and adventures in the big bad world of Mumbai, in such bestsellers as Socialite Evenings, Starry Nights and Sultry Days which have streamed effortlessly from her pen since the late eighties. The books are perhaps not high on literary pretension. They are instead robustly told raunchy yarns that provide neon lit snapshots of a reality, revealed not through detailed sociological investigation, but through rapid fire, no-frills storytelling about sexy scheming ladies, handsome villainous gents and how they make their way through plush hotels, sleazy backstreets, extra marital affairs and orgies.
Way back in the late eighties-De's first novel was published in 1989 - when license permit raj era India was still austere and joyless, in the pre Chetan Bhagat days before the explosion of the Indian English paperback novel, at a time when Indian writing in English was dominated by the scholarly Stephanian school of writers or located in the magic realism of Oriental fantasy, De was our very own Jackie Collins, belting out sexy urban quickies in racy Hinglish.
Today De is a sexy sixty and still a byword for glamorous chutzpah. She pays no obeisance to academic and sociological shrines in her writing. Instead she chooses to write for a reader who may have been nascent in the 1980s but is mushrooming all over the country today. The Hinglish speaking mall rats, the children of liberalisation, with their apps loaded phones and their social media centred lives, high on attitude if low on attention spans, are bound to be a ready audience for De's books, books which their shy parents may have sniggered over only secretly, afraid about losing out on pre-conceived attachments to "seriousness".
In her book, Superstar India: from Incredible to Unstoppable, De spoke about how her own life-from demure Maharashtrian kakubai to celebrity novelist and writer, as a reflection of the trajectory of urban India. It must be said of course that De was bold and beautiful well before India acquired the courage to be so; she was a novelty in times of a timid sexual culture and hesitant glamour. No wonder her books have been included in the popular culture curriculum of the University of London for the last decade.
Sethji, De's latest novel is her first foray into the genre of the political thriller. It's the story of a neta from Mirpur leader of the Azaad Bharat Socialist party (ABSP) and his beautiful ambitious daughter in law Amrita. Amrita is in a marriage of convenience to Sethji's effete weakling son Shrichand, but Amrita is Sethji's own sexual fantasy and chosen bed mate. Sethji's other son Suraj is a handsome rogue who when not drunk and lying in his own vomit is raping north eastern girls. Sethji awards a highway contract to a jet set industrialist, foppish Arun Mehta in return for helping Suraj escape from a rape case, a favour which sets off a chain of events masterminded by a rival business-politician cabal which result in tragedy and destruction. From the flames of death out steps Amrita, re-born from the apocalypse, a future political leader and inheritor of Sethij's mantle.
When ruthless businessman Jaiprakash and wicked political strongman Bhau learn that the highway contract is being given to Arun Mehta by Sethji, they kidnap Sethji, Amrita and Shrichand. Sethji and Amrita are saved by the miraculous appearance of Amrita's former lover the masterful MK. MK is Amrita's lost love, a superbly endowed corporate lawyer who has always enslaved the haughty Amrita by his sheer sexual prowess. However MK turns out to be fairly unscrupulous too with his own axe to grind with Bhau's family. With MK's help Amrita and Sethji escape from Bhau's clutches although Sethji's two sons meet a tragic end. In the end Amrita and Sethji set up home together as partners and lovers with Sethji realising that it was his daughter in law and not his sons, who was always his true legatee.
Sethji bursts with creatures from a familiar social landscape: blood thirsty magnates, super brat sons, bitchy gay maharajas, smart gals with big sex drives and kitty party ladies with a taste in young men. Some of the parallels with real life people leap out of the pages quite starkly. There is Jaiprakash, the fitness obsessed tycoon who falls in love with Simran a sexy woman with small breasts and offers her a boob job, (sounds familiar?), the saffron clad Bhau who runs a political-business empire guarded by criminal gangs, has two sons, carries a japmala, lives in a heavily guarded fortress, drinks whiskey, invokes Jai Bhawani and whose assassination results in riots and destruction all over Mumbai (the parallels with a certain Mumbai "hero" are unmistakable) and an aggressive, ceaselessly interrogating "loathed and feared" Oxbridge-educated television anchor named Akshay Tiwari who has an office in Noida. (Now who could this possibly be?)
Many Indias clash and collide in this colourful portrait of new India. Diesel backpacks and Joy perfume, Lamborghinis and tortoiseshell Balenciaga shades coexist with mustard oil, kerosene and gobar. Suraj drives racing cars and takes pills but also loves jalebis. A rather hilarious diabetic hit man named Sarkari whose office is his massive bed also adores jalebis and sweets. Sethji himself has a weakness for jalebis and gulab jamuns. The magnificent Amrita hails from rural Uttar Pradesh but wears shaded chiffon saris, Harry Winston ear clips and is marked by an aggressive almost wanton sexuality.
De captures a chaotic panoply of characters inhabiting an India where dangerous negotiations, murders and gang warfare take place in plush hotels and luxury apartments. In fact, the range of characters in the book is impressive and the machinations of what we now called the "businessman neta nexus" are believably sketched. The book is marked by a raw rough edge, and the short sentences and chapters make for easy reading. Although sometimes Sethji is reminiscent of a combination of the films Rajneeti and Sarkar and adheres to the somewhat predictable narratives adopted by Bombay-ites in general and Bollywood in particular when discussing or showing "Delhi politics", yet Sethji seduces the reader into its grimy glitzy world.
Amrita is the heroine of the book: beautiful, commanding and calm, she's also lonely and rejected by the only man she's ever loved; Amrita is everywoman as well as a role model. Sethji is outwardly repulsive, his ugliness a metaphor for the distaste that the general public today feels for the politician. Sethji has the survival instincts of a cockroach, a sexual appetite powerful enough to arouse a reluctant desire in his much younger daughter in law, he's a foul mouthed, up-by-his-bootstraps fixer and empire builder redeemed in some ways only by his devotion to his daughter in law. In her acknowledgments De mentions the late Sitaram Kesri of the Congress as the politician who inspired her to create Sethji!
The politicians stock has fallen very low this year; in fact, the politician is now almost synonymous with corruption, greed and lack of values. Yet 24*7 television has also made the politician an icon of popular culture in a way that he never was. Today there are talk shows, reality shows and comedy shows about politicians, the politician has become a leading character in mainstream cinema.
Politics is not only fashionable; it is also now an arena of change and flux with politics becoming the new fascination for the activist middle class. The urban middle class has rediscovered Indian politics through television; politicians are the permanent fixtures of the 24*7 news drama. It is perhaps no surprise therefore that so astute a social and market observer as Shobhaa De has chosen to write about politicians and politics, increasingly highly sellable commodities to an audience for whom politician-bashing is now second nature.
But Sethji is much more than an exercise in clever marketing. It is an energetically written rich portrait--laced with choice abuses and excellent sex - of the seamy underbelly of 21st century India, a place where every character is fatally flawed by ambition and greed. It may not win marks for its literary flourishes but is a blood-and-guts tale spanning a multiplicity of Indian experiences lived out in places ranging from Mirpur to Delhi to Mumbai to Dubai. The nods to the talking points of today such as the North Indian Problem in Mumbai or Caste Hostilities in Rural UP are a trifle unnecessary and some of the conversations are set pieces: "In our political world we don't have friends only contacts. Anyone can betray you. Family is the only thing to depend on."
Yet the brutal moral ambiguities of today's India and the inevitable tragedies that accompany a life of power and wealth make Sethji a rattling good read. Everybody loses in the end but the story wins out.
(This review first appears courtesy Biblio)