Review of ‘After Messiah’ by Aakar Patel | A meditation on power and its nature and future in India today

In his first novel, the columnist-author uses fiction to engage with facts almost too brutal to contemplate

Published - October 12, 2023 01:03 pm IST

That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is less than a truism today.

That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is less than a truism today. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Reading After Messiah, columnist and author Aakar Patel’s first work of fiction, is a fairly surreal affair. The book is carefully undated, few characters possess names, even locations are unspecified. Yet, the backdrop is all too familiar — in fact, I only had to look up from the book and glance at the newspaper to find developments uncannily similar to a key narrative in the novel.

All of which makes After Messiah an unsettling experience, something like equating a movie watched at the cinema with a subversive act. Patel has emerged as one of the most consistent and acute chroniclers of India’s recent history. Fiction, I suspect, allows him to explore areas barred to most by a basic sense of self-preservation. But is it dystopia? Is it satirical? Wishful thinking? Futurist fantasy?

It may be all of those but, above all, After Messiah is a philosophical meditation on power and the nature and future of that power in the India of today. The narrative opens with the sudden demise of the ‘messiah’ of the title — referred to only as the Big Man in the text — at the grand inauguration of an incomplete hospital. (The humour here, as in all of Patel’s writing, is always sly and sardonic; his eye for the ridiculous is second to none.) A bureaucratic scramble for his successor throws up a few names, the unlikeliest of whom is the little-known daughter of a deceased party founder.

The head of state shakes off her at-the-pleasure-of ignominy, discovers her autonomy, and appoints Mira Mandal as stop-gap leader of the shocked and bereaved country. No one is more stunned at her elevation, however, than the Big Man’s second-in-command, Jayeshbhai — a Luca Brasi to the Godfather — and Swamji, a regional strongman of the party.

All that’s said and unsaid

Author Aakar Patel

Author Aakar Patel | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

In every way, Mira is the antithesis of the one who has gone before. A grassroots lawyer with an activist daughter and no visible partner, she is a fascinating creation: moral, relatable, idealistic, and therefore vulnerable. Supporting Mira are two top bureaucrats, Ayesha and Prabhu — Patel only hints at their back stories, just enough to keep them interesting — and an anonymous house manager, who has seen leaders come and go while in charge of their residence. The conversations among these four, who develop an organic alliance at a critical historical moment, form the fulcrum of the book, with as much said as unsaid.

These three characters — and, to a limited extent, the head of the state — are the vehicles for the articulation of Patel’s central concerns about power in an electoral democracy. That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is less than a truism today, but corruption is rarely limited to one individual or even a coterie of individuals. From the very first moments of the birth of a nation — for what is a nation such as India but a compromise? — and possibly before the ink on the Constitution runs dry, the pulls and pressures of power begin nipping away at the foundation. As the past decades have proved, democratic institutions are only as strong as the individuals upholding them.

Describing the PMO — the author never refers to the position in any other way — Patel writes: “Under the Big Man, [the PMO] had become absolutely enormous. The office had come to dominate the government and its branches. Ministries no longer took decisions that concerned investment or even appointments. These orders came from the PMO and only when it was something of interest to the Big Man... Ministries focused on delivering the finest possible event or ceremony the Big Man could preside over. Actual delivery of governance was less important... It was not very different from a kingdom. The republic existed and even appeared to exist... there was a legislature but it met irregularly and did not debate at all. The law was the instruction sent down from the PMO.”

Attack on journalism

Over the course of the narrative, a particular law becomes the flashpoint for Mira. Not the “anti-national” law that incarcerates Mira’s daughter — this section was traumatic reading in the context of the October 3 raids on media portal NewsClick and the questioning and arrest of its journalists under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act — but another that allows the state to capture land for “development”. Mira’s decision on this count is preceded by a fine section on the inherent violence in the idea of the state.

After Messiah may not qualify as great literature — the writing is almost too spare, the plot line almost secondary to polemic — but it is an important book of ideas, using fiction to force engagement with facts almost too brutal to contemplate upfront. For those who have steered clear of Patel’s somewhat dense works of non-fiction (Our Hindu Rashtra, 2020; Price of the Modi Years, 2021), this is an introduction to a critical school of thought on India today.

After Messiah
Aakar Patel
Penguin
₹399

The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based writer and editor.

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