FICTION: HAMMER ON THE HEAD

June 23, 2019

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"Money power,’ (declares Satish, that one-in-a-million seer who sticks out like a sore thumb in every corrupt society) ‘and not just over the education department, he is substantially influential in every government department. He pays bribes and gets the job done, and that’s how he has built such a massive empire so quickly.’” Could there be a simpler synopsis of subject matter?

Laid out somewhere in a northern Indian state where the pattern of lived life and social demarcations are a clear metaphor for the general subcontinental operative milieu, Kuldeep Sharma’s A Callous Soul is, stylistically, a simply penned, almost pre-adolescent high school take on the persecution of the vulnerable and on the gore, the greed and the gluttony that initially fashions and then keeps afloat the filthy rich of the Asian world. Nothing much to write home about, then? Well, not really, because the book is also a stark reinforcement of the shenanigans in our own land where social, economic and political operatives follow a similar roadmap. The drama of power politics played through coercion, control and intimidation, of the inherent hesitation about and the predictable perils of upsetting the apple cart, of the acceptance of the inevitability of fate, of how things move at the state level as against real-life possibilities, rings thunderous bells here, too, across the border.

The Callous Soul, with its irritating glossary of editing mistakes and linguistic fallouts, is for sure no great literary tome and neither does it seem to have been written with that aim, but it stands out as an outright log sheet of how much we, in our part of the world, are bound by the law of the jungle to sustain a ‘loads of money’ culture. And also how we have come to accept its prevalence because nobody, least of all the preyed upon, have the courage or whatever it takes to beat the system. So like us here in this part of the world, a host of characters in Sharma’s book keep crawling and creeping and repeatedly hit their heads against impenetrable walls. They persevere in their allocated grooves while the rich and powerful grow richer and richer. Sharma does not even make a passing mention of the accountability bureaus of the developing world, ostensibly because such agencies also operate on the principles of the society and state that he is at pains to bare.

An almost pre-adolescent high school take on the persecution of the vulnerable and on the gore, the greed and the gluttony that keeps afloat the filthy rich of the Asian world

Sharma’s ‘callous soul’ is the “Nambardaar” or local headman who, according to traditional subcontinental urban politics, is a deity of sorts. His first name appears nowhere, ostensibly because the official title of Nambardaar is more relevant to the book’s structure. The youngest child of lowly parents who has worked his way to owning “thousands of acres of land and a conglomerate of businesses” through means fair and foul, he controls the destinies of the children of a lesser God who crawl the landscape. As Nambardaar, he — the custodian of state funds for education and welfare of the deprived children of his commune — uses his position of power and pelf to siphon off the money to his own benefit, to a point where none can question him. Instead, they appear beholden to him for the cast-off largesse he frequently throws down.

Hooked on to the limitless possibilities of power politics and the money that can be generated through it, he plans to graft his elder brother into the system. And how better to do this than to choose and then support his personal servant, the lowly Dalit Gangu, as presidential candidate for the village. The Dalit, because of demographic backing, will go on to win the elections as foreseen by the Nambardaar. So far so good. But the Dalit in his simplicity starts to dream big — of social change, of development, of hope for the downtrodden.

In comes the young, much enthused, intern Muskan as a windfall for Gangu’s dreams. In her enthusiasm and dedication to social service, Gangu sees the possibility, nay surety, of turning over the lives and fortunes of the villagers in his electoral area. However, as is the expected norm, it isn’t long before Gangu realises that the dreams of the poor are beholden to the manipulations of the powerful, irrespective of any ‘Muskans’. The reader becomes privy to this home truth through yet more gory detail, even as Muskan begins to feel the heat of the power-politics/money-laundering nexus that holds hostage all beneficial social change.

Up until this point, the author has already detailed the operative malaise prevalent in any third world country to a point where reading the book becomes a painful school exercise in imaging and again re-imaging a staple ideology of existence. From the impoverished dreams of poor tillers and the treatment of honest government-school principals to the agile cover up of proxy public-school teachers, from the whitewashing of corruption at every level to SUVs of the rich running over lesser humans, from the scourge of ration cards and ration shops, that only increase the misery of those whom they are designed to benefit, to the shamelessly poor quality of state-allocated food dispensed to poor schoolchildren — everything adds up to hammering home the sham of the world’s largest democracy. True to form, even the author’s attempt at creating some visuals of romantic alliances — indeed, the torridity would not have been complete without this — appears to be a manifestation of sleaze. Even the graphic two-page spread of characters after the title page, that has the Nambardaar occupying centre stage, is an indicator of the novel’s trajectory.

The novel, which is written as the first of a “to be continued” series, ends on the inauspicious note that Muskan — the determined believer in the possibilities of goodness, honesty and compassion — threatens to be that social ‘earth quack’ which is bound to shake up everything. That she faces predictable handicaps is no news for any reader from this part of the world. But will Muskan, who in her sincerity dares to swim against the tide, eventually be a harbinger of change or not? For this you will have to wait for Sharma’s upcoming sequel Knock on the Soul. Meanwhile, it would be a brave soul who reads through these 420 pages that mirror-image the world we live in as, most of the time, the greed and gluttony and the resignation to fate do not disturb as they are meant to. They arouse self-loathing. Yes, we live in this very locale and yet we proceed as if it were the most natural thing.

A Callous Soul
By Kuldeep Sharma
ISBN: 978-1731460301
420pp.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development. Currently she teaches Content Writing and Editing for Journalism at Lums Lifetime Learning Programme

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 23rd, 2019