Upamanyu Chatterjee’s New Novel Infamy opens with an unidentified body in the park, lending itself the title of a catchy first chapter. What might have been a nod to the self-contained, hermetically sealed spaces of Agatha Christie’s many bodies in libraries, mansions and quaint country houses, is instead the noisy chaos of a typically Delhi RWA park.
The body lies there, Bata sneakers and khaki pants sticking out from under the hibiscus bushes, drawing attention to itself, disrupting the morning wanderings of a genteel middle class who are first fascinated by a potential murder in their life dull as the water of the proverbial ditches, then pushed back by the monotony of the probability that it was a death from natural causes: “death from natural causes was really not fun at all”.
Nobody wants to take the responsibility of calling the police. No one wants to be “involved”. It is up to the chowkidar-park keeper to stand guard, to stand in for his middle-class employers who prefer not to get their hands dirty or their pristine mornings after the walk/yoga/laughter therapy with the gross irritant of an unidentified corpse. And right there, creeping in, much like an unpleasant smell, is the uncomfortable intersection between privilege and class, social responsibility and public apathy, public persona and private prejudice that defines much of Chatterjee’s narrative.
Class and crime
The story of the novel is all too familiar to anyone who has followed the lives of the rich and famous in post-liberalization urban India. A teenager in the late 1990s, drunk on too many privileges and too few responsibilities, commits not one but two murders and nearly gets away with it. With the bare bones of this plot of each privileged family protecting their male offspring from the consequences of their wrong choices, Chatterjee crafts a story of justice and retribution, of the wickedness of the world and the complicity of those who look the other way.
A total of nineteen years separate the murders from the discovery of the body in the park, and Chatterjee allows his story to unfold over that nearly two-decade span, almost mirroring the pace at which criminal cases drag through theaters. hearing, periods of intense activity interspersed with waiting and delays and the unease of not knowing what will happen next.
Infamy tells the story of two teenagers, quite close in age, separated by the enormous chasm of the classroom. Pukhraj, descendant of the Saraf family, future heir to his father’s flourishing jewelry business, loves luxury cars, expensive weapons, drugs and gambling. His unlikely and unique friend, Parmatma, is his driver’s son, as invested in studying and building a future for himself as Pukhraj is in chasing ecstasy with beer and overcoming speed limits on highways.
There is a clear awareness of class identity in their relationship. Parmatma’s work, as a friend again lesser, orbits Pukhraj, never quite aspiring to parity with him. Pukhraj steals his father’s car, under the influence of a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, and in a fit of rage commits his first murder, followed by a second to silence an unwitting witness. Parmatma is, of course, supposed to take the hit.
Pukhraj’s friendship doesn’t quite extend to telling the truth or facing the consequences. The two boys are taken into custody and their lives are immersed in the particular and disruptive rhythm of prison life. What follows is an indictment of the legal system as well as the class and power structures that isolate and protect those with the deepest pockets.
Privileges and prison
The novel exposes the multiple flaws in the judicial and penal systems. Starting with a judge who must set “a favorable date on which to initiate proceedings” in consultation with the almanac, the absurdities pile up. Judge Lodhi, keen to draw media attention to what looks like an “important” case, wants to advance his career with the new visibility given to him but is not averse to accepting a bribe -wine before passing judgment. Witness accounts are made to change with money or coercion. Expensive lawyers with their leaden and expensive accents, who put an end to any naive idea of telling the truth.
The timeline might be that of the 90s, but the ability to manipulate facts and re-tell events with a slant is just as pronounced in Pukhraj’s world as it is in ours. After all, nothing spells post-truth more effectively than the sacrifice of facts in the service of profit.
Chatterjee’s account of prison life is an exposition of corruption and rot on every perceptible level. Boys’ lives are entirely governed by their ability to spend. Services can be purchased; comfort can be paid for; a marginal circle of safety can be drawn around them. Pukhraj has access to his Gucci shoes and his Diesel jeans and his favorite shampoo.
If inmates miss home too much, they can be “registered” at the nearest hospital. “You can go anywhere you want for medical reasons. Most of our VIPs find AIIMS very enjoyable throughout their prison term,” they are told. The boy with only borrowed privileges soon learns that it was crucial to simply survive, to get through each day, without further abuse/humiliation/indignity.
Class remains an undeniable presence in this story of urban, upscale India. The Sarafs seem to operate in a feudal system where they can claim complete ownership over the people in their employ. In this tightly aligned structure of caste and class, the lives of those at the bottom of the ladder do not matter. Their superiors cannot “waste their time talking about the lower classes”.
Language itself becomes a currency of class privilege, with strict codes of who can say what. Pukhraj’s father, Nemichand, the patriarch, largest employer, has zero tolerance for abusive language, even when not directed at him, from those he perceives as his lower class cops: “He should never have given that drink to that lower class cop. When he himself uttered the most filthy obscenities, it was the privilege of his fortune; when others did it in his presence, it was lèse-majesté. In this world of austere binaries, slums are razed with no tears shed for sudden homelessness and the plight of four-year-olds employed in fireworks factories inspires no one to act.
What we know
The novel also takes cognizance of this great Indian social unit – the patriarchal family. Pukhraj, though utterly irredeemable, is nothing but a product of patriarchal parenthood which considers the male child utterly incapable of doing evil. Its monstrosity is not inherent but cultivated. Abuse begets abuse; Violence begets violence.
With a father who loves expensive cars more than he loves his own child, and a mother unable to stand up to her abusive husband and therefore choose to invest all her emotional energy in her son, to give in to all his whims, Pukhraj is all Freudian – the Lacanian man-monster made alive. In an apparent simplification, the driver and his son, with all their reduced circumstances, share a much healthier relationship. That trope from Hindi cinema, the poor family that sticks together when selfishness tears the rich apart, is pretty much part of that pattern.
The book has a certain cinematic quality, from its opening scene to the final confrontation; a confrontation that takes on the appearance of a morality play, with its easy dichotomy between good and evil. What highlights this apparent binary is the question of complicity. How do we define wickedness?
The author helps. He says, “One can never be entirely certain either of what constitutes evil, whether it is not governed just as much as the uncertainty principle by the four cardinal characteristics of time, location, movement and rotation, and if it is not just as unstable, volatile and slippery, in short.
Here we face the wickedness of an unjust, unbalanced, hostile world, yes, but we must also face the wickedness of complicity. Letting the status quo prevail, fearing the upheaval of the proverbial apple carts, the boredom that defines human behavior, is perhaps what makes us all complicit in the personal tragedies of a Parmatma or an innocent young boy who dies through no fault of his own.
Infamy, in telling the story it makes, does not innovate. It does not say anything radically new. He only speaks a truth we know only too well, with chilling precision, laughing inside at human frailty and the choices we refuse to make.
InfamyUpamanyu Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger Books.