Tulsi Badrinath on her new novel that plots a museum theft against the backdrop of existential questions
Tulsi Badrinath's “Man of a Thousand Chances” (Hachette India), recently launched, is very different from her first novel, “Meeting Lives” (Niyogi). If that one used an unconventional format with a dreamy, arty quality that actually made some readers ask “where's the story?”, this one very much has a plot — and a plotter.
Harihar, an employee in a Chennai museum and an earnest, doting father of Meeta whom he has to marry off in an opulent style befitting his community's expectations, plots to “borrow” and pawn a priceless coin minted by Emperor Jahangir. His job gives him access to the antiquities stored in his office, and an object not displayed to the public will not be missed for a long time. By that time, Harihar will have redeemed the coin, having paid back the pawnbroker using money from an investment due to mature just a few days after the wedding.
Taking advantage of a hubbub caused by an errant temple elephant that escapes from its mahout and enters the museum compound, Harihar sets his plan in action. It seems, like all meticulous schemes, the perfect crime.
But first-time thieves forget to calculate the stress of being on the wrong side of the law. Or leave a margin for unforeseen developments, or the possibility that others can be dishonest too. So the novel from the first has a suspenseful tone. We know ‘whodunit', but we don't know if he will be caught.
“Yes,” agrees Tulsi, adding. “The resolution in the end is both at the level of the narrative as also the philosophical.”
Here we come to the crux of her interests. Tulsi says as the daughter of a philosopher (Sahitya Akademi Award recipient late Chaturvedi Badrinath), she wants her novels to have something the reader can take away beyond the storyline. So there is, behind this seemingly simple story of a middle-class man in a socio-economically induced fix, a more complex question: We find ourselves in a discussion of karma, of why some actions have logical results and others seemingly don't.
“I wrote this book to answer the question, if only to myself, what is it that makes things happen? Fate or providence, self-will or karma,” says the author. “And the plot was woven around this theme. It is a question that begins to preoccupy Harihar when the unity of his world is breached by the loss of Ratan, his son.”
Harihar, suffering guilt pangs, wonders if he is just a pawn in someone else's chess game. Are we finally responsible for our actions? Tulsi suggests that perhaps the punishment one expects for knowingly committing a wrong has already been dealt out to Harihar, “since we will never know which action is being matched in which life with its reaction/punishment.”
She remarks, “Harihar arrives at the conclusion, which matches my own view, that regardless of what makes life happen, rather than trying to control the capricious outer world, he could try to concentrate on his inner nature... for the only thing that he can control are his responses to a puzzling, often brutally unfair, world.”
It is a long way to come for a man born into an orthodox business family, whose early life lessons have been about how to keep money safe from greedy relatives. “These are people who don't read very much and don't examine their lives to any great degree,” notes Tulsi, “which is why Harihar is surprised by his own growth once he joins the museum.” Tulsi emphasises that Harihar's wife Sarla is a pivotal character. “She truly is fundamental to this story as well, sliding out from the confines of her house into the world of men, a scary world for her…She's the unsung hero.”
The setting also ensures the story is peppered on the one hand with cameos from a North Indian style wedding, and on the other, details about Indian history and numismatics. Did this require a lot of research? “Not a lot of research but yes, very specific research relating to coins. I was looking for stories of hoards, and found the lovely one relating to the Bayana hoard, and also interesting details such as Jehangir shown holding the wine-cup in a particular coin, or peacocks on Roman coins.” Then there is the iconography. “I wanted to write about Indian art, to share my love for it and actually wanted to fill this imaginary museum with the best examples of Indian sculpture and bronzes, etc. but soon realised that would not work in a novel. So I chose just one bronze, my favourite, the absolutely unique Vrishabha-vahana Shiva of the Thanjavur museum and described him,” says the author, a Bharatanatyam dancer trained under the Dhananjayans, adding, “The Hindu had carried an article about 11 years ago with all the details I needed.
I had actually cut out and saved that article!” Tulsi says her next work will likely be a non-fiction book, though she has started on another novel too. Meanwhile, she is shortly off to Ahmedabad to read a paper and perform at a colloquium of women writers organised by the Sahitya Akademi. A cool convergence of vocations: meeting lives!