The Writer’s Endurance Test

Book Review ♦ The Assassination of Indira Gandhi: The Collected Stories of Upamanyu Chatterjee, Volume I

Originally published in India Today.

From the ‘hazaar fucked’ slang of English, August through six subsequent novels and a novella, linguistic playfulness has always been a central feature of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s style, enamouring as many readers as it puts off. Every hue of Chatterjee’s hallmark language-driven humour (from adolescent to acerbic to dark) is on vivid display through the 12 stories—written between 1985 and 2018—in this collection. But what is also foregrounded, perhaps more so because of the genre, is Chatterjee’s playful, experimental approach to form as he flits between fact, fiction and fairytale.

The titular story (‘The Assassination of Indira Gandhi ’), written earliest and placed at the end of the book, is a straightforward example. As if looking through an event of national importance through the wrong end of a telescope, Chatterjee describes its passing through an individual who has more pressing matters on his mind. He zooms closer in ‘Girl’, which takes place not exactly in Aarushi Talwar’s bedroom, but in her classroom, exploring the reactions of her friends and teachers. Though nobly intentioned, strangely for Chatterjee ‘Girl’ seems almost moralistic and, at times, reads like a mash-up of investigative reports and opinion pieces.

Chatterjee has honed his sometimes puerile love of the scatological into something less gratuitous here.

Chatterjee is on stronger ground in stories when fact is not so ponderously pounded into fiction. ‘Othello Sucks’, for example, describes itself as ‘at some moments a piece of non-fiction, at others a radio play and yet others a comic strip in prose’; its take on a privileged family’s irreverent engagement with Shakespeare’s drama is an entertaining romp through ideas about race and literature. The family crops up again in ‘Can’t Take This Shit Anymore’, in which Chatterjee draws a contrast between their cerebral world and the ‘existence circumscribed… by the shit of others’ of a family of manual scavengers. The story has its heartbreaking moments—Chatterjee has honed his sometimes puerile love of the scatological into something less gratuitous here—but balancing the parallel narratives isn’t easy, and occasionally the prose teeters into essay territory.

Chatterjee captures the interaction between Westernised Delhi elites and ‘India buggers’ — ‘Europeans bitten by the India bug’—with virtuosity.

Historical facts and statistics seem sometimes clunkily inserted—as in ‘Three-seven-seven and the Blue Gay Gene’, via a character’s diary chronicling the backdrop of Section 377. Still, though it’s not always seamless, Chatterjee’s experimentation with form is laudable. That he doesn’t need to play around so much is evident in the more conventional short story ‘Foreigner’, a weird tale with a classic twist, that captures the interaction between Westernised Delhi elites and ‘India buggers’— ‘Europeans bitten by the India bug’—with virtuosity.

A couple of stories go further than ‘Othello Sucks’ in using literature or fairytale as grist for realist or historical fiction. Some readers will find them charming; others gimmicky. And some stories, like the tender ‘Sparrows’, revive characters from past Chatterjee novels, recreating the atmosphere of the earlier decades in which they were set. Their enduring quality justifies the ‘Volume I’ on the cover, while Chatterjee’s varied approaches could attract new readers to his writing.

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