Book review: Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee
VILLAINY by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.
What a cracker of a murder mystery, what a cracker of a book! Chatterjee is back with all his old snark, the snark we loved in `English, August` but have only caught fleeting glimpses of in the books that followed that sparkling debut novel of Chatterjee`s.
This is a sardonic take on villainy Delhi style, and is all the more effective for its matter-of-fact, unemotional tone of narration.
Young Pukhraj, the spoilt son of a jeweller, likes to toy with fast cars usually filched from his father`s stable, ditto with guns and dope. He doesn’t brook opposition from anyone except for his abusive father who is quite swift to reach for his belt. One day, Pukhraj meets a whole lot of people who seem to be saying no to him: his old friend Sarfarosh, that young worthy`s little brother, that little brother`s dog Bindaas, a stray bus driver….and given that Pukhraj has a short temper and a gun at hand, mayhem ensues.
Pukhraj goes to jail, along with his family chauffeur Atmaram`s son Parmatma, even though the latter ought to have been nothing but a sterling witness to the havoc unleashed by the rich young man. That’s in a sane world…but this isn’t a sane world, this is a world where everyone has some villainy inside them, ready to be pulled out as and when the situation required it.
When the protagonist finally gets what`s coming to him, the reader wants to stand up and cheer.
And oh the names: Pukhraj for the villain, Parmatma for the might-have-been-hero, Durga for the young villain`s Nemesis, the Fly by Night hotel where dirty deeds are done in the dark, the bus belonging to the Vidyapati International Baccalaureate School,a Brotherhood of Kindness Orphans` Den of Vice at Chiragh Dilli, a mistress named Meenakshi who keeps changing how she said hello: once it`s Hell-you, then it`s Haal-o.
Of course, Villainy is a cynical look at how the rich live in a bubble that is impervious to even murder charges and prison stays…upto a point. It is a look at caste and community hierarchies. It is a look at how utter villains can and do walk away from acts of dire villainy. It is a reveal how everyone is on the take, if we really needed such a reveal.
So, there are some weak points in the story, like how it starts with the discovery of an UIDB (Unidentified Dead Body), then goes straight onto a related trajectory, and never quite comes back to the scene of the UIDB discovery. But overall, it really doesn’t matter…
The humour veers from sly to overt. The observations are simply hilarious. As when Hanumant at the mortuary reflects that his temporary staffers really ought to be given a uniform, since it didn’t seem right to deal with the dead wearing blue jeans and a tight, semi-transparent tee-shirt which for some reason, had a plunging neckline. One individual to be paid off demands the sum of Rs one crore and 8 lakh because 108 is an auspicious number. A magistrate who always lifted and flung his robes back before sitting down, as if to give his rump an airing. A rich woman who shoplifts compulsively for kicks, who takes to watching Swami Nityanand`s discourses on YouTube after massage sessions with her muscled new chauffeur because she felt a little guilty after those sessions, and the swami`s philosophic discussions were soothing because they made absolutely no sense. Along with Nityanand, Asharam, Charles Sobhraj, Sahara`s Roy, all get a mention.
Like I said, a cracker of a read.