NaCoHuS is a dystopian fever dream. Through Suket, Shams, and Raghu—an Amar-Akbar-Anthony trio of friends, each with their own complicated relationship with faith and reason—Purushottam Agrawal paints a frightening picture of an India steeped in anti-intellectualism and political and religious extremism. Rational thought must be punished with torture: psychological, physical, emotional, supernatural. All must fall in line. And at the centre of the narrative lies a sinister governmental organisation, the National Commission for Hurt Sentiments—NaCoHuS—an omniscient group trained in the dark arts. This lot, hidden in plain sight, runs clandestine operations enforced by BauNaiSaRs—the “bouncers”, if you will—and a menacing chameleon (literally) spokesperson who revels in mind-reading and torture, out to get all intellectuals still capable of free thought, to “reform” them.
Agrawal, noted essayist, critic, and author, has translated NaCoHuS—along with Noor Zaheer and Ritambhara Agrawal—from his own 2016 Hindi novel. Given the political changes that have taken place in the years since, he has taken the liberty of revising and adding new sections and modifying the dialogue to better fit the syntactical conventions of the English language.
What we get is a very tense and dystopic version of our country. One of the many refrains of the NaCoHuS, in a nod perhaps to Orwell’s famous “War is peace…” passage from 1984, goes thus: “Destroy history, it kills mystery! Down with memory! Long Live Ignorance! They who have remembered shall be dismembered!” Just to drive home the point, themes of authoritarian governmental control, doublethink, and strict surveillance run through the narrative.
The thing with dystopian fiction is that a delicate balance needs to be struck. Political commentary is bound to figure prominently, without which the whole thing lacks bite. The greatest dystopias are often crafted by authors yearning for a better tomorrow, or simply freaking out about the world today. So there has to be, by design, some grounding to the world of the novel, some likeness to reality. But too much of that and the world may feel like an inferior pastiche, betraying a lack of imagination. It might also lose a sense of universality, spending too much of its time in the here and now. Go too far in the other direction —reliance on exaggerated scenarios, fantasy, and hyperbole—and you are left untethered. It can feel too outlandish, too caricature-ish. In NaCoHuS, Agrawal tries to tread that fine line, succeeding at times, not quite at others.
Daring to question
Agrawal seems genuinely perturbed by the current political landscape, and right-wing/majoritarian extremism is targeted aplenty (though it is hardly his only target; a well-defined sense of morality, rationality, and free thought is the premise here, rather than any partisanship), via the eyes of Suket, our primary lens into this world, and his two friends. Each of them unafraid to speak their minds, to offer their visions of a progressive world, in a world that, shrinking by the minute, leaves no room for such flights of fancy. In place of measured debate and a feeling of community and growth, they are faced with aggression over hurt sentiments. Our protagonists all get multiple beatings for daring to question the status quo.
The plot, sparse for large parts, is centred around the disaffected isolation of the three as they advocate free speech and progressive politics through their work in academia. There are a couple of romantic plot points for Suket that do not amount to much beyond highlighting his flaws and solipsism, with the author focussing more on the moral degradation of society. In a recurring motif with ominous undertones, Suket is unable to turn off his TV, try as he might. The news keeps blaring, allowing Agrawal to reconstruct, with great delight, the farce that TV news has become both in the world of the novel and in reality. Anchors scream propagandist inanities, fistfights break out from time to time.
“In a recurring motif with ominous undertones, Suket is unable to turn off his TV, try as he might. The news keeps blaring, allowing Agrawal to construct the farce that TV news has become.”
While resisting the urge to name names or spell things out too much, Agrawal alludes to real-life events throughout NaCoHuS, as we get references to historical tragedies from 1984—the gas leak and the violence—as well as 1992 and 2002. Mob violence, religious and political extremism, “hurt sentiments”, and similar incidents allow the reader to find a direct link between the past and the present of India.
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Agrawal wears his politics on his sleeve; what NaCoHuS lacks in subtlety it makes up for in passion and an erudite intensity. Purely from a personal standpoint though, this “ripped from the headlines” approach to world-building, while admirable in its own right, has its drawbacks as it does not provide the sufficient distance from reality that I seek in fiction. But there is a dense, vivid quality to Agrawal’s prose that works powerfully here.
But in the chilling second half of the book the author cranks it up a notch. Strange things have been happening to Suket, and his inability to fall asleep places him in a bitter trance. And then he gets picked up by a couple of “BauNaiSaRs”, who put him in a car and drive him off to a mysterious location. It is a car ride from hell. Raghu and Shams end up there too.
- NaCoHuS is a dystopian fever dream.
- The author is perturbed by the current political landscape, and right-wing/majoritarian extremism is targeted aplenty in the novel through allegory and symbolism.
- The second half of the book is chilling, with an omniscient chameleon-like creature holding the protagonists hostage in an interrogation room.
- The photographic understanding of historical and cultural Indian texts that the author possesses provides a lot of colour to the proceedings.
Rich in allegory
Here they meet the chameleon-human, who tries to talk sense into their rebellious hearts. He knows what they are thinking; he can stop any movements they might want to make; he can block their speech when he wants to give an uninterrupted monologue. He is an omniscient being with total control. The chameleon switches up his speech, from good-natured ribbing to vicious sermonising (accompanied by invisible torture), to the odd lapse into empathy. While the tone of the novel remains serious and disturbing throughout, Agrawal sprinkles it with dark humour. As when the chameleon transitions from laughter into a pained cough, and the three friends wonder what is wrong, Agrawal writes: “His lungs had never been exposed to nicotine. It was just that they could not manage to sustain such amounts of laughter due to simple lack of practice.”
In this section of the novel, from Suket’s kidnapping to the meeting in the scary room with the chameleon, Agrawal’s fascinating use of formal storytelling devices shines as the story builds up to a crescendo. We get frequent departures into magic realism, with Shams encountering a religious/mythical figure he had learnt about in childhood, or Suket witnessing the streets changing colour and shape.
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The almost photographic understanding of historical and cultural Indian texts that the author possesses provides a lot of colour to the proceedings; these references, rich in allegory and symbolism, are frequently interspersed with the sinking reality that the three are faced with. For readers, this melding of dream, reality, the metaphysical and sci-fi and dystopia—realism and surrealism jostling for space—compounds the rumination that goes on in the characters’ heads. It seems to draw from the traditions of Indian literature, particularly drama, to add a visual commentary to the story.
NaCoHuS is ultimately more than a bleak cautionary tale. It is suffused with many different colours that give it layers of interest.
Akhil Sood is a freelance arts and culture journalist from New Delhi.