The reader’s perception is constantly challenged by one story after another.
As I flipped through The Teller of Tales, it reminded me of English August, a hugely successful novel by civil servant-turned writer Upamanyu Chatterjee. Bhaskar Ghose, like Upamanyu Chatterjee, also has been an IAS officer. So, I expected yet another humour-filled take on the dreariness of life of a bureaucrat in the Indian hinterland. But as I prodded through a couple of pages, I could realise that it was a different kind of book.
It is about two IAS officers and through this book we also get to know how the bureaucratic set up of our country functions and how the officers learn to survive when they are made to live in godforsaken places as the government’s representative. The tone of the novel, unlike English August, is not satirical and the story has been told in a matter of fact way except at some places where the narrative becomes surrealistic. The readers may at times feel lost when facts acquire the colour of fiction and fiction crosses the boundaries drawn by the facts. What is real and what is unreal keep challenging your perception.
The novel has a sluggish start but the speed picks up and you are sucked into the story after 10 to 12 pages. The narrator of this novel is Tapan Biswas, an IAS officer, who seeks refuge in theatre to escape the boredom of bureaucratic life. Another favourite pastime for him is listening to tales told by his friend Arunava, a fellow IAS officer. So, Arunava is “the teller of tales”. Arunava tells stories which are sometimes unbelievable and at times quite credible. You suspect that the story he has told can’t be believed but then he convinces you about the veracity of it. The irony is that the story that sounds real or credible turns out to be fiction or a figment of Arunava’s imagination.
As a reader you begin to suspect every move, but Arunava comes up with a story and again you believe him and then you come to know that you have been duped. This keeps happening till the end when Tapan discovers some disconcerting truth about his friend.
The denouement is heart-breaking, poignant and powerful, and you are made to think about Arunava long after you have finished the book.
Bhaskar Ghose writes with flair and fluency and is successful in capturing the essence of a bureaucratic life in a small town of eastern India. What I did not like about the book was that at many places the English translation was written in the parentheses next to Indian language words and they looked jarring. I think that was not required for the Indian edition and if it was necessary to have English translation of Indian words they could have been included at the end of the book as a glossary.
The Teller of Tales, Bhaskar Ghose, Penguin Books India, Rs.299.