The premise of debut Indian writer Jugal Mody’s Toke is simple: Lord Vishnu is not feeling up to saving the world. He does not feel like reincarnating just yet, not today in any case. So he hands the job over to a trio of young men who tend to indulge in smoking marijuana a little too frequently and in rather large quantities. Two of them are never not smoking, in fact. Having a vision of Lord Vishnu does not throw them off track in the least (keeping in mind their track isn’t exactly the straight and narrow) and it falls on their friend Nikhil to convince them the task is more than just the result of a little too much weed in their systems. Saving the world is not to be confused with hallucination, regardless of how many visions of Lord Vishnu appear. Of the three accidental protagonists, Nikhil is the only one who sees the bigger picture. Danny and Aman, meanwhile, bumble along, though Mody is quick to point out they “are not really that dumb. They practiced real hard to be like this. And of course, in the process smoked a ton of pot.”
Toke is clearly written in the grand tradition of stoner culture and comedy, which, of course, is based entirely on the frequent and unabashed recreational use of marijuana by at least the lead characters. Characters like Cheech & Chong, Harold & Kumar, as well as those in the Friday films and, more recently, in mainstream hits like Pineapple Express, are all perfect examples of this form of comedy. Toke is clearly a homage to this culture. It is so blatantly, openly, lovingly referential that it cannot be called derivative in the least. It references pop culture tropes constantly — from stoner comedies to a Douglas Adams-style panic button and dolphins leaving the planet to hip hop videos and Japanese anime, all the way to The Blues Brothers: “John Belushi believes they’re on a mission from God! And nothing ever happens to them!”
Nikhil is the perfect protagonist for such a novel, partly because when he is asked to save the world, he really doesn’t have much going for him. He’s perfectly average: a software engineer in constant trouble with his manager, with a numbing crush on a co-worker and living with his family. He’s everyman. So, will an average boy evolve into a worthy protagonist when given such a weighty task? He’s not a hero born but a hero made, and that’s what makes him entirely accessible to the reader.
As for this matter of the world as we know it ending, Mody isn’t about to start getting serious about the looming apocalypse in Toke. The threat is a brain-controlling maggot that converts all of humanity into perfect, cookie-cutter versions of themselves. Gone are all the madness, chaos, choice and sheer life that the earth teems with. It is replaced by maggot-controlled zombie human vehicles that simply follow someone else’s grand master plan. Mody’s zombies don’t walking around with putrid degenerating flesh, limbs at awkward angles, gait stiff and mouths gaping wide for the biggest chunk of live flesh possible. Instead, they are “humans running around circuits like electrons” in a “giant organic supercomputer” so that the world takes on the shape of a “psychedelic electronic video. Perfectly timed”.
It makes perfect sense for Mody to have chosen order as a sign of the approaching apocalypse. For a writer who clearly revels in the chaos and joy of life with open possibilities, Bombay becoming “like the insides of a massive clock” with humans as mere cogs and wheels is obviously a sign of complete ruin.
This is a fun, funny, entertaining book. Mody may be a debut novelist but he has fortunately escaped the tendency of first-time South Asian novelists to take themselves too seriously. Toke is written by someone who has disregarded the current standard of South Asian literary tropes entirely. Some readers may even find fault with most references to popular culture being Western.
Of course, this would be an entirely moot point considering just how global popular culture has become — regardless of where certain tropes originate from. Mody’s references are fed by a love for film, music, television, computers and most importantly, the internet. Whether it is eight-bit gaming technology or a ghetto-fabulous version of Lord Shiva appearing with back-up dancers, Toke is an incredibly aware, plugged-in novel. It is a book that wants to have fun, and wants its readers to do the same. Take it seriously or expect it to take a moral high ground or ‘literary’ stance and you’d just as well sell its soul.
By Jugal Mody
224pp. Price not listed