Nature provides us rivers with waters, clear as crystal; but we, driven by greed and self-serving goals, make them muddy, soiled, and unusable. In India, it is an irony that we claim our rivers sacred but we choose to abuse them mindlessly. This novel, however, is not about our rivers and the metaphor of a ‘muddy river' (in the title) is only to sum up the social and political scene of post-Independence India. Like a wheel within a wheel, the plot is woven as a ‘novel within a novel', a kind of auto fiction narrated in the third person. Interestingly, critical views in regard to the way the story progresses are offered by three persons — the narrator's wife Sukanya, and his friends, Herbert and Subir. They are not only the characters in the novel but they also remain outside its frame, making critical comments about the story and some of the events relating to them. This gives us a different reading experience that makes the novel innovative, and distinctive in its construction.
The protagonist of this Kafkaesque novel, Ramesh Chandran, is a reluctant bureaucrat, trapped in the frustrating and fearsome web of petty politics, corporate corruption, and regional issues. He is driven from place to place, like the nameless hero ‘K' in Kafka's novel The Castle.
In this story, the ‘castle' is the Central government, which banishes Chandran to distant Assam for rescuing a hapless Bengali engineer working for a public sector corporation. He is kidnapped by the extremists, who, fighting for an autonomous State, do not hesitate to indulge in acts of violence or be utterly insensitive to human values.
One leads to another, and Chandran finds himself in his peace odyssey, facing formidable and complex issues such as corporate corruption, political skulduggery and ego clashes. As a key character involved in a fire-fighting marathon, he runs into innumerable hazards. At the same time, he stands to gain in that he gets opportunities to meet several interesting persons, whom he promptly caricatures in this novel with subtle humour, sarcasm, and surrealistic flourishes.
Chandran is able to perceive the humorous side even in a die-hard Marxist leader as no man can be unidimensional. Although, the author appears to narrate the activities of the separatists with stylised touches, it looks as though he cannot but genuinely sympathise with the aspirations of the Assamese people for an autonomous State.
It could, indeed, come as a revelation to many that Mahatma Gandhi had referred to Assam as an ‘autonomous territory', which one of the separatist leaders of that State quotes to buttress their cause.
Anupama, an amazing character, who fully understands Chandran, is an engineer working for the corporation, and she has this existential problem of having got caught between her professional integrity and intense love for Assam. Chandran has immense trust in her, and their ambiguous relationship with platonic undercurrents is described with sublime, nuanced writing skill. On the domestic front, Chandran's marriage appears to be on the rocks. Sukanya, his wife, holds him responsible for the unfortunate demise of their only child, not with firm conviction but as a kind of excuse for their drifting apart, as both of them are not ready to face the real issue of attitudinal incompatibility. The interesting and complex part of this relationship is that Chandran loves her for what she is. Her response is unemotional, but she remains dutiful, as is expected of a Hindu wife. At the same time, she has a distinct identity of her own in her love for nature, animals and birds.