Upamanyu Chatterjee’s stories are not for the faint-hearted

Percy Bharucha | Updated on August 09, 2019 Published on August 09, 2019

Suspended disbelief: The book’s titular story ‘The Assassination of Indira Gandhi’ explores the state of limbo, of journeys that end nowhere   -  The Hindu Archives

His book ‘The Assassination of Indira Gandhi: The Collected Stories of Upamanyu Chatterjee (Volume One)’ packages human foibles with a veneer of humour that is delightful yet challenging

This first volume of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s short stories holds a special place on any bookshelf for a variety of reasons. It presents a succinct snapshot of the author’s evolution over the last three decades. It features some of his most beloved characters including Agastya Sen from English, August and Jamun from The Last Burden. But mostly because of the sheer vastness of time and space traversed in this one collection. Through historical figures, contemporary issues, fictitious journeys and old heroes, he proves repeatedly that no matter the land, no matter the time, emperors everywhere are naked. All the reader can do is enjoy the various shades of humour embedded in this despondent exercise and the precision of the author’s craft in The Assassination of Indira Gandhi: The Collected Stories of Upamanyu Chatterjee (Volume One).

Like a virologist studying a new disease, Chatterjee studies humans and the human condition. He isolates them from their source, sticks them under a microscope and introduces elements into their environment until they squirm. These studies include a bewildered and homesick Sir Thomas Roe, the 16th-century English diplomat — and his misadventures with inept translators and stubborn maharajas on his Bharat darshan tour; a father’s obsession with Othello and Shakespeare; 13-year-old students dealing with the aftermath of their classmate’s murder; a bored civil servant’s first contact with small-town India; and a young boy’s study of the absurd legal quagmire that is Section 377, which criminalised homosexuality. Each story in this collection is a precise, controlled experiment in language, form, humour and a common perception of the truth.

In his signature style, the author coats each encounter with hypocrisy, each character foible in a veneer of humour that is delightful to read and is not for the faint-hearted. His humour stems from the consequences of the trivial — Sir Thomas Roe reading the book of Jehangir backwards, having opened it the wrong way, and life imprisonment under Section 377 hinging upon the definition of the word ‘penetrate’. There is a lightness of touch in dispensing wit and in the subtlest of nods, which is refreshing to read. For instance, a sexual predator’s use of a particular song as a ringtone. In case you’re wondering, the song is Aadmi Hoon, Aadmi Se Pyaar Karta Hoon. But underneath each layer hides a truth of such surreal, devastating proportion that one worries while turning the page. Chatterjee paves the road to laughter with our collective excrement.

The tragedy of the Chatterjee cast lies in their dislocation, both spatially and chronologically, from where they truly want to be. There is a vivid longing for home that cuts across stories and characters. Perhaps it is this dislocation that provides characters with an outsider’s perspective — stark and skewed. A perspective that cuts through the sanitising effect of words, the tradition of pomp and pageantry, the Indianisms we still use in ‘trying to defend the indefensible’. Another unsettlingly familiar trait of these characters is their vicious pragmatism. A mother upon the death of her daughter’s friend thinks about the sleepover she no longer has to coordinate.

This rather singular combination of vicarious thrill and instant guilt showcases Chatterjee’s ability to articulate those thoughts that we suppress with the greatest force, to demonstrate beyond the superficial the true nature of our motivations.

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi: The Collected Stories of Upamanyu Chatterjee (Volume One); Upamanyu Chatterjee; Speaking Tiger; Fiction; ₹699


In The Assassination of Indira Gandhi, the story that lends the collection its name, Bunny is the exemplar of the insularity and ennui that defines us. Through him and through others, the book explores the state of limbo, of journeys that end nowhere, of characters cursed with the knowledge that their efforts are circular. The author is a worthy navigator for the absurdity that seems endemic to life.

In The Name Of The Rose, Umberto Eco references Aristotle’s Poetics to say, “alone among the animals — man is capable of laughter”. In the book’s final scene, a fight breaks out between two monks over whether it is permissible to laugh at everything, at God himself, and if laughter would unleash chaos in the world.

In The Assassination of Indira Gandhi, Chatterjee points to a world that has long ago crumbled into chaos, with laughter as its only recourse. In such a world, a thorough reading of Chatterjee’s work is highly recommended. One is hopeful that if this is the first volume, then there will be more — many more naked emperors and much more laughter.

Percy Bharucha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and illustrator

Published on August 09, 2019
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