When the dust has settled, General Election 2014 will have a lot to answer for, including bringing the newspaper concept of stop-press to publishing in India and inviting – on bended knees, no less – the dreaded PS (Politischeparodie Sturmtruppen). And the history of world literature shows that once encamped, the PS never leave.
The problem with the PS is that it is, like everything that marches to the beat of iron-clad irony, heavy-footed and heavy-handed. And after an evening of listening to the PS gallumph by, you could be left with deafness and a memory of clangour and demotic speech.
Not to diss it overly, but UnReal Elections reads like the PS advance guard. Clearly — as with The Candidate, a satire allégorique — Penguin thought it imperative that the final draft be held back until the general election not just loomed but actually fell upon the country like a tsunami of bricks.
This, of course, falls under bigtime publishing risiko. Books can never mimic news magazine deadlines and escape being discrepant, however ardent the wish of publishers to match the hyperkinetic flow of on-ground information. There’s a reason why political satires based on realtime events don’t do well: first, quickies that need to catch the wave, so to speak, don’t exactly gel with the exacting literary demands of satire; second, nothing works against satire like unintentional gaffes.
And Unreal Elections has more than its share of them. For example, a SWOT analysis of Robert Vadra vs Narendra Modi on who will make the “better PM” mentions Modi’s “chappan ìnchí chhätí” brag — but the chapter is datelined ‘October 12’, and Modi created that much-derided même only this year.
And that is a bit depressing, considering the book is the joint effort of the two most gifted political spoofers in India: CS Krishna and Karthik Laxman, two über management types who’ve been running The UnReal Times website since 2011. Both of them — and URT’s columnists, who tend towards an Anglicised-North Indian acculturation — are crackerjack humorists à la The Onion (if homologated and, therefore, a bit dumbed-down). But that’s on the website, where their skills lie not so much in original thinking but in mash-ups of existing photographs of políticos and comic-style blurbs written expressly for ‘fart-in-the-face’ send-ups.
It’s a style that fits wonderfully in the visual dynamics of the Web. But the humour is almost entirely nontransferable to word-dominant print. URT carried a ‘report’ (‘In Pictures: Celebrities attend Book Launch of “Unreal Elections”’, 18 April 2014), which ended with four panels that showed a stoney-faced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still parked at the launch venue after the revellers had left. When he is told, “Er..sir, the launch party is over,” he responds, still po-faced, “Theek hai.”
This ‘dead response’ has been transferred to the book (rather, from the book to the strip, since the book came first), where Manmohan Singh is mistaken for a wax copy of himself at Madame Tussauds in London by a gaggle of American schoolgirls and the tour guide, who then apologises to the PM, who gives him a fish-eye stare “for a long time” and mumbles “Theek hai” and leaves. It works in a comic strip. It deflates like a soufflé in print.
The Candidate demonstrates no ‘in the present’ impulse and, therefore, suffers from absolutely its very own whimsies. (Disclaimer: I content-edited two drafts of this book, and the author is a friend.)
The author, Anirudh Bhattacharyya, is a Toronto-based NRI with a long history as a journalist in Delhi. More to the point, he is the founder of the oldest Indian satirical webmag, Jaalmag, which got itself a cult following soon after its commencement in 1998.
The how-to (and how-not-to) experience that comes of sorting through warehouses full of wannabe satires means that The Candidate slips more easily into the ‘literary satire’ category. For one, no politicians in it – the living, the dead or the living dead – are named. Nor is the year of election specified. The candidate of the title is a New York-based, pink-slipped NRI filius prodigus who lands up in Delhi seeking a poultice for his scalded ego (his wife has also left him) and gets virtually shanghaied into standing for election by an old friend, a político with his eye on the main chance. He does, of course, come to appreciate his roots, stumbles upon the unmentionably secret hideout of the swing vote, and, eventually, dreams of winning, despite that he is, basically, a good man out to repair all of creation when he can barely repair himself.
The whole story is as likely as a snowflake falling in the Sahara and turning it into a fecund greenhouse. But it allows you, therefore, to fall head first into the waiting mantrap of suspension of disbelief and, in order to keep your head, to read the story as an allegory of everything that is wrong with the electoral process in India.
Not that you don’t know what’s wrong. But knowing wrongs is pretty much the same as knowing of and knowing about wrongs. Everybody knows knowing isn’t enough — they need it in writing; and everybody loves a story. If the story is a dark tale made light, so much the better.
The Candidate seems to be, by design, an antigrav book, light reading — though, strangely, not speedy reading — in a time of darkness. Unreal Elections is heavy reading. The Candidate, with everyone an Everyman, can be understood by non-Indian readers. Unreal Elections so firmly anchors itself to the minutiae of time, event and place that a neighbouring Bangladeshi or a Sri Lankan reader would be lost.
Classical satire (is there another kind?) needs a bite that leaves a deep impression. And Indian writers don’t, as a rule, do biting. “The fawning nature of Indian politics, whereby many leaders are surrounded by yes-men and rarely bother to learn how to laugh at themselves, makes such jokes all too rare in the public sphere,” wrote The Economist (‘All the news that’s fit to fake’, 21 May 2013). “Strong cultural codes about deferring to elders provide another stumbling block…” These are kneecapping proscriptions, so our writers replace satire with slapstick: which works, too, in the manner that Bollywood works. It does not work at all as literature — which, really, is the crucible and casa of satire — but as comoedia de distinendae, the déclassé fun-making of authority. Where satire seeks to disassemble — totally, down to gristle and synapse — Indian satirical writing in English seeks to do no more than demolish. In a way, in these times of systemic depravity, demolition works too.
But satire is purpose-designed to hold up a mirror to the self. Subcontinental satire just doesn’t. Maybe there is far more to elections in India aside from merely the mindboggling numbers, loopy logistics and unscalable methodology, than single books of fiction can handle. Maybe we don’t have the wherewithal to make good mirrors (we don’t, not materially, either). Or maybe we don’t like what we see.
Whatever the case, it’s striking that it took an incautious publisher to print two side-by-side satirical books on politics in India. (That it’s bang in the middle of the most significant, and acrid, general election in the nation’s history is proof that a certain axiom speaks the truth: Everyone needs to hit the till when the iron’s hot.)
It’s also striking that, in this nation in which the threat of being legally docked for slander stops the best of journalists from publicly naming known crooks, Unreal Elections has got away with naming the whole spectrum of living political characters and turning them into archetypal caricatures that play to popular notions and misconceptions: Rahul Gandhi the Mama’s Boy; Sonia the Regina Arpia; Narendra Modi the Too- Capable-By-Half, Manmohan Singh the Catatonic… It’s a long, unkind list, and I look forward to seeing Unreal Elections get away with it.
If we can’t have satire, maybe our politicians can, finally, have self-deprecation.