(I don't usually put my book reviews here, but this once I think I really want to. A shorter version was published in the DNA of Sunday, April 1, 2007. Copyright: DNA)
It’s one thing to possess writerly ambitions; to want to examine a complicated set of historical events and weave them into an interesting narrative. It’s quite another to actually have the ability to do so. Sujit Saraf’s The Peacock Throne has all the ingredients for an epic: a stretch in Indian history that is still fairly unexplored, and a multitude of characters. But the execution of the novel – its plot and characterization – is so uninspired that reading it becomes an exercise in endurance.
Starting in 1984 with the anti-Sikh riots, Saraf touches upon the reservation stir and the Babri Masjid riots, and ends in 1998. The usual suspects from Chandni Chowk people his book – small-time politicians, a social worker, a prostitute, a ‘fixer’ type, a chaivala and some street kids.
Everyone in the novel – rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim – is tarred with the same sternly cynical brush. Now if we must be told about the mercenary nature of human beings in excruciating detail over 750 pages, the writing had better be gripping. Saraf’s relentless cynicism, combined with his highly limited craft, makes for a crudely-executed, fairly disastrous read.
To begin with, his characterization and sense of structure are poor. His people are clichéd and sketchy – inexcusable in a novel of this size. Of the nine or so chief characters, only three seem fleshed out. They are Ramvilas the fixer, Kartar Singh and Sohan Lal. Saraf captures their idiosyncrasies in quick flashes. Which would be fine if they were the only people in the book.
But they are not. Gopal Pandey, the ineffectually-drawn chaivala, who the back-jacket indicates is the protagonist, is more non-negative than positive in a life-affirming way. Saraf’s description of social-worker-turned-journalist, Chitra, is again facile, clichéd and childishly cruel.
While Saraf is brutally honest about the Congress Party’s many sins, he is strangely coy about naming the BJP, preferring to call his party of right-wing Hindus the ‘Indian People’s Party’. If this doesn’t make you suspicious of his politics, his treatment of the Muslims in the book certainly will. They are uniformly venial, un-likeable and often, consciously dehumanized. In comparison, the IPP members – who incidentally set a man on fire during the anti-reservation stir – are almost flatteringly drawn.
Suleman Mian, the IPP’s Muslim rival in Chandni Chowk, is another alarming cliché. His world, when it is finally described, is portrayed so uni-dimensionally that Saraf’s total alienation from the character is obvious. Women and religious minorities tend to suffer in Saraf’s hands. Out of a lack of ability we sincerely hope.
Structurally, The Peacock… is divided into five parts. Between each, years pass and many life-changing events take place. These are almost always reported as having happened in the past. As a result, supposedly important moments lose their edge. And the narrative voice becomes an incessant, amateurish drone.
There are strands both bizarre and outrageous in the book. Inexplicably, Chitra asks older boys to show the younger boys how to masturbate, believing, for some reason, that these ‘demonstrations’ will protect them from being sexually exploited! Of course the exact opposite happens. There is an outrageous plot aside which has Suleman paying two Muslim boys to blow up Babri Masjid in case Kar Sevaks fail!
Predictably, the squalor of
Some scenes stand out in the book, like that of Kartar Singh being chased by rioters at the same time as a young, hungry Gauhar. Saraf’s descriptions of mobs and their orchestrated fury, and of police collusion during the anti-Sikh riots, are chilling.
Perhaps if Saraf’s historical ambitions were smaller, his book might have been better. Long novels, when well-crafted, can be extraordinary. For instance, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, about the Emergency, was riveting, leaving you with a profound sense of loss and empathy. Saraf’s book leaves you with mixed feelings, chief among which is indignation that a tree in a sustainable forest somewhere died to bring you this tediously super-sized tome.