Sunday, February 28, 2010

Anarchist's Agenda

[An edited version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald on the 14th of February.]

Anarchist’s Agenda

(Review of The Diary Of An Unreasonable Man, by Madhav Mathur)

There’s a certain kind of urban, salaried young man who will instantly understand Madhav Mathur’s message in this book. The man who’s working a white-collar job, finding that the moral compromises he makes in the course of work weren’t on any syllabus in college. Who is beginning to get tired of the rat race for the new car, the new flat and whatever else everyone else wants.

For this reader, Mathur offers a thought-experiment: What if you stopped being part of the system, and instead decided to take on the people taking advantage of it? And what’s more, what if you actually went through with all those vaguely imagined pranks you’ve always thought would serve the villains right? And what if all those prankish plans executed perfectly, and people understood what you were trying to say and made you a folk hero?

The story stars Pranav Kumar, an advertising executive, whose normal state of mind is ‘sickened by hypocrisy’. After several years of working at writing advertising copy, he finally confesses to his boss that he can’t keep doing this job. Advertisers, he says, are the root of all the materialistic rot in society: “We’re building wants. We’re making an entire generation adopt cellphones and motorbikes as their goals. We’re to blame for discontentment. If we don’t get them through television, we always have papers, magazines, and billboards…”

Pranav quits his job and, together with two friends, decides to shock people into realizing the mess that society is in. The story chronicles all their “prove-the-point” practical jokes. For example: they bring over toxic sludge from a chemical factory and use it to prove that the factory owner was hand in glove with the Pollution Control Board. Or use a paint bomb in a local train to remind commuters that life is precious. Or expose all the regulars at a brothel to society.

What exactly Pranav wants to prove with his jokes is not exactly clear – the targets are all over the place, but one can imagine Mathur, at some point, daydreaming of them and going, “It would be so cool if someone did that!” The most consistent message, of course, is the anti-materialism one. Without this message, the book is just a series of practical jokes played on people and practices everyone loves to hate – industrialists, prostitutes’ customers, salesmen, fashion designers. It’s the message that gives some form to the book. In some ways, this is similar to the work of Chuck Palahniuk. But where Palahniuk takes one or two sentences to express his pop-cultural, cynical sentiments, Mathur fills up half a page with clunky ponderings. His forte is the action scenes, not all the philosophy and dialogue.

In fact, one can imagine Mathur playing the scenes in his head and putting them down on paper, the action playing out quickly, the characters’ voices providing the depth to the dialogues. But since we see only the bare words, that depth doesn’t come through. The book’s been blurbed by Anurag Kashyap, and someone like him would probably be able to transfer the book to screen well (as long as the speeches are kept short, of course).

Different writers have their own ways of placing their characters and story in recognized contexts. Stephen King uses common American brand names and advertising jingles. Palahniuk uses phrases from current slang and street talk. Vikram Chandra used Hindi curse words and Mumbai place names to set Sacred Games. Mathur, however, doesn’t do a very strong place setting of his people. The characters listen to Metal and Rock music (no bollywood?), and their conversation sounds generically current-desi. There are mentions of local trains and of contract killers, but very little else that places the book in Mumbai. It may have been deliberate, an attempt to make the book applicable to all white-collar-dominated cities in India, but the book would have benefited from setting it more strongly.

However, Mathur does have a distinctive voice, a hip attitude, and an interesting subject and approach. If he had revised it through a couple more drafts, or read it out loud to friends, it would have smoothened out the flow and removed clunky elements. Too many paragraphs feel like a first draft, and there are phrases and words that jar. In the most glaring example, the word ‘anarchist’ is used throughout the book as if it’s commonplace: by reporters, by police constables, by contract killers. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that the word could be used as commonly as, say, terrorists – couldn’t it have been introduced more naturally?

It will be interesting to see what Mathur does next. If he can hone his voice, and channel the sentiments of upwardly mobile India, his books will be a much-needed gritty alternative to the current college-campus-set crop of writing.