By Md. Firoj Ahmmed
Upamanyu Chatterjee’s debut novel English, August received much appreciation because of its exquisite craftsmanship. Published in 1988, it was regarded as the “Indian Catcher in the Rye.” The novel was adapted into a film, directed by Indian filmmaker Dev Benegal. This extraordinary work was followed by a series of novels/books which received a relatively tepid response. But with The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, it seems that Chatterjee has revived his best form. The short novella is a fictitious account of a homicide which starts with the sudden loss of lives in a whole family, including their dog, due to a fire. The novel is set in Batia town in the state of Narmada Pradesh between 1949 and 1973. Though the Batia sub-division is 70-year-old, Dayasagar Adinath temple in the town is considered to be a thousand-year-old. Meat consumption is prohibited in the town as it is mostly inhabited by Hindus and the temple precinct is considered holy.
The story revolves around the character of Madusudan Sen, an IAS officer who is traumatized to have heard the murder of Nadim Dalvi and his family, and plans to inspect the death of his “principal protein and cholesterol supplier” and vows to turn vegetarian till justice has been served. There are three central characters in the novel – Madhusudan Sen (father of Agastya), Nadeem Dalvi and Basant Kumar Bal.
Madhusudan Sen, father of Agastya, is the sub-divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Batia town, who lives in “a rather charming late-nineteenth century bungalow on Temple Road in the Civil Lines area [that] was a mere couple of kilometres away from his court” (p.25). Since Sen is an ICS, it is assumed that he is from an upper caste aristocratic Bengali family. After moving base to Batia town, Sen observes that the area around the temple is vegetarian. Murari tells him, “… the entire area from Dayasagar Adinath down to Durga Tank Crossing is vegetarian, sir. Meat, fish, eggs, liver not allowed. Not even onions and garlic” (p.28). As someone from an upper caste aristocratic Bengali family, Sen is fond of eating meat: “I have been accustomed since childhood to some non-vegetarian item in every meal….meat, fish, eggs, liver, beef” (p.35). He reproves it when he comes to know that the cook considers touching onion and garlic a sin and finds his “principal protein and cholesterol supplier” (p.39) in Nadeem Dalvi.
A subordinate mamlatdar or taluk head of SDM Sen, Nadeem Dalvi serves beef and other meat delicacies to Sen Sahab as he is a non-vegetarian: “Sen would pay Dalvi a sum of three rupees and four annas per week. Dalvi protested. Sen did not allow him to speak. The non-vegetarian stuff would be cooked at Dalvi’s house and suitably camouflaged, ferried twice a day, on bicycle, to Temple Road by the mamlatdar’s most trustworthy peon, also a Muslim” (p.37). Dalvi lives with his family and a pet dog in a magnificent house. Basant Kumar Bal, a servant of Dalvi, lives in backhouse and assists him in managing errands such as “ferrying in water and wood and coal, washing up, rushing to the bazaar to buy sugar and eggs, tending to the cows, clearing the clothesline, going off to get the boy’s school uniform ironed, the usual” (p.18).
Basant Kumar Bal left Purulia and settled in Batia town as he had no family. When the Dalvi family goes to the bed every night, Bal “had his dinner in the shed, whatever was left over for him by the sister-in-law and her daughter (who were treated like servants in the Dalvi household) from whatever had been left over for them” (p.19). This suggests the exploitation and marginalisation of the lower class people in India. There is great deal of disparity between Sen and Bal in terms of their social position because of severe economic inequality. While Sen is a high-caste Bengali IAS officer and Nadeem Dalvi is a well-off Muslim with a colossal house and a government job, Bal’s social and economic condition is vulnerable. It is important to understand the dynamics between the characters and their classes to fathom the depth of the novel.
All of a sudden, Dalvi’s family members and their dog are burned down: “The house of the Dalvi’s was on fire. The flames had swallowed up the entire single-storey building and rose, with a frightful rustle and roar, fifteen feet in the air” (p.10). When Sen visits the site of the horrible occurrence, he observes a devastating sight. Bal is the only eyewitness to the flames that engulfed Dalvi’s house. The investigation concludes that the deaths are a homicide. Sen starts nosing around the death of his “principal protein and cholesterol supplier” (p.39) and pledges to become a vegetarian himself. He vows to turn the whole town vegetarian unless the culprit is incarcerated for the fatal death of Dalvi and his family. Sen’s own craving for vengeance muzzles other’s dietary freedom. After becoming a vegetarian, Sen compels the whole town of Batia to go vegetarian by closing down the abattoirs as per the recommendation of a person from the temple trust.
Nadeem Dalvi and his family are supposed to be killed because of their Muslim identity and their choice of food: “they had non-vegetarian almost every day, saab, goat or chicken or fish or egg. They ate like rakshasas themselves and always left only two small pieces of meat in the pot, one each for the sister-in-law and her daughter” (p.20). The novel depicts the current scenario of religious intolerance in our country where people are being lynched, killed and targeted unfairly on the ground of their identity and the lame excuse of eating beef. It can be stated that this novel is a commentary on the present climate of intolerance in India.
Upamanyu Chatterjee excoriates the Indian judicial system for delaying justice indefinitely. Bal who murders six innocent family members of Dalvi’s family, waits for twenty-one long for the final justice: “Sen is clear-headed enough not to jumble the sluggishness of the judicial system with the monstrosity of the crime” (p.110). Sen considers these years as “a gift of two decades of life to a recipient unworthy of even a moment of it” (p.110). Since the novelist was part of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), he is better au faith with the system inside out. Upamanyu Chatterjee depicts the corrupt and greedy nature of lawyers in contemporary India.
The novel discourages death penalty. The President of India grants the mercy petition of the condemned prisoner, Basant Kumar Bal, and “accordingly commuted the sentence of death to imprisonment for life” (p.122).
Unlike many of his other works, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian is very accessible and lucid. By resorting to humour even in the midst of sadness and death, the narrative loses none of its complexity and subtleness. Although The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian is not like Chatterjee’s ground-breaking debut novel English, August, he certainly raises some grave religious and political questions that have beset contemporary India.
Dr. Md. Firoj Ahmmed is an Assistant Professor of English at Malla Reddy College of Engineering and Technology, Hyderabad. He received his doctorate from Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh, India. His areas of interest lie in the Contemporary Indian Writing in English, South Asian literature, Postcolonial literature, Gender Studies, Commonwealth literature and Literary Theory.
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