About a dystopia at once familiar and funny.
The Competent Authority is the head of the Civil Services of India and operates from New New Delhi. He is ‘temporarily’ in charge of all systems while the country is being “reconstructed” after the last war that occurred a decade ago and wiped out large chunks of the nation and made Bengal a protectorate of the Chinese. “As a humble servant of the people, he was anonymous” and does not wish to be recognised by anyone, save for a handful of people with whom it is imperative he interact. It is a bizarre society that he is at the pinnacle of.
The haves (inevitably filthy rich, with oodles of political clout, and shamelessly corrupt) live in the Dead Circle. The less fortunate human beings were relegated to a ghetto called Shanti Nagar. It was rumoured that they were diseased and unhappy mutants. Ever so often the Bank of Bodies (‘we don’t just repair bodies, we enhance them’) emissaries — the Medical Military Commandos — would swoop down upon Shanti Nagar inhabitants (‘donors’) to harvest body parts; usually ‘when some rich bastard wanted an urgent replacement’. In the next step of evolution for the firm, the board of directors wanted to progress from imparting Medical Joy to Religious Joy, by co-opting their ‘logical ally… Dharti Pakar of the Art of Breathing’.
In this charming mix of despots and maniacs also exist Hemonto Chatterjee, a telepath tester; Pintoo who donated a hand to Pappu Verma, the sweet but spoilt brat of Sameer Verma; Ali of the Al Qaeda; and Pande, the policeman. The chorus consists of a potpourri of characters, ranging from the eunuch Shanti Bai (who founded Shanti Nagar); Banani Chatterjee, the English school teacher who accidentally becomes Pintoo’s local guardian; Taru da the true-blue politician; and Mehta, the Competent Authority’s aide; No. 2 at Bank of Bodies, and so on.
The Competent Authority is a satire like none other by contemporary Indian authors writing in English (except perhaps for Ruchir Joshi’s The Last Jet-Engine Laugh). It is packed with detail and the reader is expected to engage with the script to appreciate the full import of what is being described or alluded to. Having a fair knowledge of geo-politics of the Indian sub-continent certainly helps enhance the pleasure of reading this novel. For instance, the completely colourless CA could belong to any party or ideology. The fact that he exists is frightening. Some of the grim issues that the novel deals with are political puppetry, organ harvesting, communalism, the impact of conflicts, privatisation, eternal debates on capitalism vs communism, and an investigation into the notion of a Nation State. But the humorous manner in which the author weaves the tale ensures that it is not a tedious read.
Shovon Chowdhury is an ad man who has a way with words. He is able to tell a story competently, with a detached sense of cynicism and despair about the crumbling of a secular democracy. It is an enjoyable novel as long as details like the disappearance of Sameer Verma do not annoy one.