At times, reading After Messiah is like standing in an abattoir while on LSD, watching a large pig slaughtered and the life-blood eddy down the Indian political drain. At other times, I felt like throwing a crumpled paper ball at Prof. Patel as he droned on, explaining various political phenomena rather than show them. Who pulled off this balance better? Oh yeah, that guy from Motihari, George Orwell.
In an era when journalists have robust bank balances but deficit spine, when publishers are hard selling books by right-wing pseudo-historians and voodoo-economists, when statistics from official institutions are discontinued if they are unflattering, Aakar Patel has boldly provided India with periodic whiffs of fresh air, with his analytical study, Price of the Modi Years, and his work on majoritarianism, Our Hindu Rashtra: What It Is. How We Got Here.
His recent work, After Messiah, is a political novel. Fiction can often provide greater insights into the zeitgeist than data and political science, and fiction can be a great vehicle to say things obliquely—like Orwell’s critique of the Soviet revolution in Animal Farm or his vision of authoritarianism in 1984. It is natural that Patel, who as the head of Amnesty International in India was arrested, prevented from travelling abroad, and fined crores of rupees, should write about governance and power, in the form of a story.
After the stalemate
After Messiah is the story of what happens after the leader of a country, the unnamed Big Man, suddenly falls dead. Yes, suddenly, and while inaugurating the facade of an unfinished and unfurnished hospital.
Initially, the babu-cracy and the Cabinet and the Head of State, all hitherto totally subservient to the Big Man, are at a loss on how to proceed, so centralised has everything become in the person of the Big Man. But they recover.
Two men are favoured for succession: one, Jayeshbhai, the minister for strong-arming partymen, opponents and dissidents in a manner resembling no one that I can offhand think of. He is always accompanied by his son, whose mouth is often open while listening to his father.
The other favourite is Swamiji. I have no idea who Patel is referencing here because he is aligned with a massive herbal product enterprise but somehow also reminds me of a pious Chief Minister. Perhaps it is neither of them.
Two powerful men always equal a stalemate. So, for the interim, an aloof, activist woman MP named Mira is chosen as the stopgap Prime Minister till these guys can sort their differences out. The bureaucrats and the head of state are thrilled, as are the old fogies who suddenly regain their mojo when a party meeting to figure out the next step degenerates into mayhem thanks to Jayeshbhai’s supporters, and counter-violence by, well, you can guess who.
“ The novel is not all heavy stuff. In fact, its best parts are its surreal ones.”
Suddenly, a snafu: Mira’s daughter, Joy, is kidnapped. This propels her towards taking up the Chair. And when she faces a smear campaign (by an electronic media still a stranger to objective or independent reporting), she shows the people the stuff she is made of.
No more spoilers, I promise. Suffice it to say that Patel digs deep into the very nature of power, and how it ensnares even the well-meaning Mira, who is determined to do something for the oppressed (against rapacious capitalism). She learns, and this is the takeaway of Patel’s novel, that power is driven by the logic of violence—a seeming contradiction, because logic constructs while violence destructs.
Violence and the state
“...The state is a violent political creature,” her house manager, who has seen many Prime Ministers come and go, tells her. “And the elite applaud it for being this, especially when someone like the Big Man helms it. In our part of the world, we worship the incarnation of the god who comes to earth as the perfect man, with the mission of eradicating evil from the world, and doesn’t need any higher authority.”
What Mira has found is that in order to change the system, she has to perpetuate the system—with the tool of the state, violence. Max Weber was not wrong in defining the state as having the “monopoly on violence” within its borders.
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But the novel is not all heavy stuff—in fact, its best parts are its surreal ones, like when Jayeshbhai, wanting to undermine Mira in Parliament, takes his substantial bunch of legislators to a resort. Jayeshbhai is the main target of this book; it is he, not the Big Man, who is methodically hung upside down and cut open by Patel with a serrated blade.
“It was the last set of boxes—containing photographs, bank statements, pen drives with video clips, hotel bills and so on—that he was really interested in... The state did not care about the peccadilloes and sexual interests and habits of its legislators and their spouses and children. But this was what interested Jayeshbhai most deeply.”
After Messiah is at times breezily-paced, but it gets plodding when Patel forgoes narrative for exposition. Also, the ending is unsatisfying. I was reading Lytton Strachey’s 1921 biography Queen Victoria, which is written most funnily. For, as the cliché goes, oftentimes, truth is stranger than fiction; perhaps Patel should have gone all out. Nonetheless, one certainly hopes his novel inspires more political fiction from India, because it has been too long since we had a good read like Shrilal Shukla’s 1968 masterpiece, Raag Darbari.
Aditya Sinha is Features Editor (India) of Russia Today’s website, RT.com. His new crime novel, Death in the Deccan,is out in November.