A second novel is a litmus test for an aspiring writer. The first novel is usually filled with autobiographical inputs, but the second? A repeat performance could fall flat if it adopts the reminiscential mode. There is, of course, the standard mix which can be tempting but will certainly land the author into the slot of a time-pass writer. So how do we view Man of a Thousand Chances?
Tulsi Badrinath's Meeting Lives was more of a soft remembrance of domestic imbalances trellised by India's cultural artefacts. Man of a Thousand Chances attempts a complex tracery of a coin thief's feverish movements to get back the stolen gold into the museum. Like Paris of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tiruvanathapuram of Neela Padmanabhan's Pallikondapuram, the metropolis vies with Harihar for the hero's slot. However, Tulsi remains focussed on the North Indian element in the multi-coloured, multi-flavoured Chennai society.
Stealing a rare coin struck by Jehangir is quite easy for Harihar Arora, as he is an assistant curator in the Madras Museum. As one belonging to an extended family of traders, pawning it is not too difficult for him either. The quirky charm of the novel lies in Harihar not being a hardened criminal. A typical, honest middle-class fellow, he needs the money to celebrate his daughter's wedding grandly and prove to his relations that he should not be dismissed as one belonging to the salaried class. Understandable, as his little son had been lost in the mazes of Chennai years ago. This is a stand he must make and we get to have a festive show.
Tulsi is in form. All these men and women are goody-goody but who can gauge the depth of middle-class follies? All this thieving and pledging, selling Plasticart containers and cutting down on dal and vegetables, where a cup of hot moong dal with ghee melting in it is a thrilling luxury. All the struggle and anxiety and the razor's edge walk on honesty ends up in one day's glitter of georgettes with chamkies. And the predictable hiccups of a Chennai wedding:
“Don't ask, yaar, I'm going mad. You should have seen the plates the caterer brought. Filthy, dented stuff. I told him to take it back and get better ones. He says he will only put up two counters. I told him he better put up four or I'll cancel his contract. How will two counters serve dinner to all the people?”
But the pressure of time brings the marriage to a happy conclusion and the daughter is given a send-off by the moist-eyed parents. The problem remains. Will Harihar be able to replace the coin in its place or would he be exposed as the coin-thief? We cannot swish the pages fast, since Tulsi has gone for a basket-weave construction maintaining a parallel bond between Harihar-Sarla and Lodha-Kumar.
No horizontal reading! It is then time for us to wonder whether fate is indeed inexorable. Is it bad karma that Ratan was lost forever and good karma that Harihar escapes by the skin of his teeth? Tulsi is good to the patient reader and helps us connect the painting of the deer and Harihar's deliverance from what had seemed to be insuperable impediments:
“The tiger poised to attack him was the fear of discovery; the fire, the loss of all his money; the hunter, Lodha placing him in the greatest jeopardy by depriving him of the coin and the deep river waters the shame and ignominy in which he would drown … Divine grace had ensured that like the doe had delivered her calf, he had steered Meeta into her new life.”
Man of a Thousand Chances marks a new turn for Indian fiction in English. Intellectually stimulating, and yet emotionally iridescent. Almost every movement in place. The bronze Shiva of the Museum did deserve Harihar's hug. For once, the Destroyer had become the Preserver!