EXPOSING THE dark, venal heart of Indian politics, Sethji is an absolutely unputdownable novel about ambition, greed — and above all, trust.
Or so says the blurb at the back. First, Shobhaa Dé’s latest novel is eminently putdownable. The plot is thin, the storytelling is clichéd and the twists in the tale politely send RSVPs months in advance (generally, they can’t make it). Neither does it expose the “dark, venal heart of Indian politics”. Unless you’ve been living under a rock and didn’t know that Indian politicians aren’t altruistic idealists who wake up every day thinking about what they can do for our country, there’s not much exposed in Sethji.
The eponymous Sethji is a regional political satrap from Uttar Pradesh (inspired by Sitaram Kesri, says Dé), who is a crucial coalition partner at the Centre. He’s facing a challenge to his position due to corruption charges, compounded by his son raping a Northeastern girl. He wriggles his way out of that situation only to hurtle into another. He and his family are abducted by a Mumbai don backed by powerful commercial interests. Still, he and his trusted daughter-in-law Amrita plot their way out (with all the finesse of a hippopotamus). Defying all logic, it works without a hitch.
The idea of writing a novel about politics in a post-Mandal India is an attractive one. The incredibly complex political spectrum, the bevy of vested interests and the interplay between the two are great fodder for any writer. But this is by no means a political novel. Instead, the novel is something that Dé is much more comfortable with: a story of rich and powerful people, their quest for more riches and power, and the pressures of being rich and powerful. Dé’s characters are a collage of the brands they use and who they sleep with. “She changed out of her sari into her comfortable Juicy tracks,” she writes about Amrita going to a crucial meeting, “grabbed her orange Birkin, slipped her feet into tan-coloured Tod’s loafers, and half-ran towards the garage.” She then expertly drives her brother-in-law’s Lamborghini Murciélago to meet the man who will protect her brother-in-law from the police and media. At no point in the entire scene does she reflect on the fact that said brother-in-law is accused of raping a minor; the chapter could just as well have been about a Saturday shopping trip.
For the rich and famous who inhabit high society, politicians have always been fascinating, alien creatures. They eat at the same five star restaurants, attend many of the same parties, but the fundamental differences in backgrounds means there is little understanding between the two groups of elites. In writing about them, Dé lazily situates them in familiar surroundings and tries to project familiar personalities. This robs them of what makes politicians such unique literary characters.
Ajachi Chakrabarti is a Correspondent with Tehelka.