An anti-celebration

Indrapramit Das | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on February 13, 2015
50, not out: Upamanyu Chatterjee gazes into the abyss in Fairy Tales at Fifty. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

50, not out: Upamanyu Chatterjee gazes into the abyss in Fairy Tales at Fifty. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

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Like a David Lynch film set in India, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s latest book is a monstrous fairytale that respects the darkness of the real world

In his latest novel, Fairy Tales at Fifty, Upamanyu Chatterjee displays the confidence of a writer undaunted by the inexplicability of the world. Middle-aged and perhaps world-weary, Chatterjee revels in the pandemonium of modern India as it limps towards the future, having been born in strife and blood. This is a book that gleefully gazes into the abyss, knowing that what gazes back is just a reflection. As the serial killer Anguli observes at 50, pondering what it might be like to be destroyed by the ghosts of his many murder victims: “How could any darkness that they revealed be more profound than the blackness within him. It was everywhere, in every heart and every life… just blackness at the core of creation.”

In Fairy Tales, Chatterjee traces the lives of identical twins Anguli and Nirip, while also exploring their gnarled, blood-soaked family trees. Separated at birth, Anguli grows up poor, a “pauper”, and Nirip grows up privileged and wealthy, the would-be scion of a familial criminal empire — a “prince”.

Anguli (who names himself after a folkloric killer, who found redemption after trying and failing to murder the Buddha) revels in evil, killing to seek joy and power in a life hung out to dry on a low rung of Indian society. Nirip lives large off the spoils of evil, while renouncing it in his apathetic day-to-day life. Both are complicit in the chaos that populates their nightmarish version of India (heightened, but hardly far from real headlines), and both are entwined in each other’s fortunes. An apt metaphor for the cyclical violence engendered by inequality, but in Chatterjee’s hands, not an academic one. The subtexts in the novel resonate under layers of blackly comic gore, drugs, incest, kink and soap-operatic plotting, ensuring that Fairy Tales remains thoroughly entertaining throughout. It feels in its grotesqueness like a David Lynch film set in India.

Though Anguli and Nirip anchor the novel, the women in their lives provide a vital narrative counterweight. There is Nirip’s mother (who isn’t his real mother) Manasa, who holds her own beside her downright demonic, baby-eating and blood-drinking crime-lord husband Pashupati, subtly affecting and controlling their family’s wealth and power. Aptly, she is the “witch” to Pashupati’s “ogre”. There is Anguli’s “godmother,” who turns out to be far more important than she appears. There is Nirip’s half-sister Magnum, an unwanted daughter who longs to live as a man, but can’t coherently articulate her gender dysphoria within a viciously misogynistic family (and country, and world), becoming the butt end of a cruel joke played by the universe. This is as much a novel about the survival of these women in an overwhelmingly evil world as it is about the apathetic blundering of its men.

If all this makes Chatterjee’s novel sound nihilistic, it’s because it is. But cheap, easy or shallow it isn’t. The novel is flush with the vibrancy of life even when it laments its inevitable decline into “the aches and pains of age”. This is a fable about the slow corruption of hedonism into decadence. Fairy Tales reads like one long orgy — the waning days of an Indian empire that never was, where pleasure-seeking is reserved for the privileged, the powerful, and the amoral, who are inevitably criminals. Buried in the novel are any number of hypothetical reasons why pleasure has been hijacked by the violent — from cultural propriety to the concept of money. In short — by civilisation. Nirip sees this, arguing that “money was crucial to solving the riddle of the point of the universe because without it… everything — all speculation — fell flat… the good life cost money.”

Chatterjee’s magic-realist exaggerations, turning everyone in his novel into fairytale monsters, never stray too far from reality. What’s disturbing is how familiar these monsters are — these hateful bigots and voracious capitalists. “Even in lives that have the quality of a fairy tale, human beings change with the aches and pains of age, with the sense of failure and futility that time always engenders,” writes Chatterjee. Perhaps, this is to be celebrated. Even monsters die, and rotten empires crumble to be reborn. We wait for Anguli or Nirip — the rural working-class bogeyman and the repugnant, bored one-percenter — to change, be redeemed, but they’re already lost.

And yet, there’s an ecstasy to Chatterjee’s opulent prose and grand set-pieces, which roll over this nightmare and absorb every scent and texture like a wave of honey. Even though his characters are awful people, there is in them a longing for joy they cannot find — the sensual pleasures of human experience: food, sex, drugs. They have it all, taking it by force, but they can’t enjoy it, because in their world carnality is repressed, stigmatised and commodified into the cyclical violence of Darwinian capitalism.

But we can enjoy Chatterjee’s roiling anti-celebration of the sensory chaos in a fallen world, distilled into prose and opera, comedy and tragedy — a monstrous fairytale that respects the darkness of the real world.

Indrapramit Das is the author of The Devourers

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Published on February 13, 2015
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