Lit for Life 2015 Authors

‘The impulse for satire comes from a sense of fairness’

At times, a thought experiment is the best mirror of lived experience. It is certainly true of Shovon Chowdhury’s satirical first novel, The Competent Authority, which imagines what life might be a few years from now under the rule of a deranged bureaucrat, when parts of India have been bombed out of existence or have seceded. The book has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014. Excerpts from an interview:

What does it mean to be shortlisted for The Hindu Prize?

It means that a plan I’ve had since youth has finally started to succeed. From as early as I can remember I have wanted to lower standards wherever I could find them, so it would be easier for other people to achieve things. It needs one guy in front to make the entry level much lower. So I am very happy because this is a reputed prize and I’ve been able to lower the reputation of the prize... In the wake of this, many young men and women will be dreaming of winning The Hindu prize.

The Competent Authority was 11 years in the making. What motivated you to write it?

Two totally unconnected things. One was that any government document you read — if you manage to get through the whole thing, which is usually very difficult — will have the phrase “by order of the competent authority”. I started thinking supposing there actually is a guy like the competent authority — an anonymous guy, a phantom, just one guy running everything — then that would explain a lot. So it is the story of that guy, and the way I thought he might be. He is an amalgam of all the officers of the IAS I had the great fortune to be in the same room with.

The other thing that struck me was the Gujarat riots... It struck me how little value life has in India, not so much the challenge to secularism or the victory of Hindu religion. I thought ‘man it’s so easy to get butchered in this country’.

So I thought of a future where these two things would coalesce.

Can you talk about your research project ‘The Trilokpuri Incident’, which is also a response to a riot?

The Trilokpuri Incident started in our garden. There were a bunch of young people, and the subject of 1984 cropped up. And it turned out none of them had a faintest clue what had happened. And that kind of shocked me. My immediate impulse was 'those buggers are going to get away with it'. Then I started thinking 'how did they get away with it?'. I realised I was investigating a mystery. Its a mass murder mystery; like any other mystery it will examine motivations, it will examine methods, there will be some red herrings.

Our impulse to forget is so deep rooted, it needs constant hammering. You need to keep reminding people. Facebook helps you to act like a knock on the door all the time, so that's why it seemed appropriate for this particular thing.

Where does your impulse for satire come from? What do you make of the recent explosion of the genre in India?

I think the impulse for satire comes from a sense of fairness; to cut through the crap. You are angry about unfair things; that’s the trigger. I don’t know enough, but some people have said this might be the case. And certainly when I examine my own motivations, it seems that way.

When everything else is crap, then the jokes are what will show you what’s underneath the crap. I’m not sure Faking News and The Unreal Times are doing that because they are both pro-Modi. I don’t think they are satirists. Funny stuff is supposed to speak truth to power. But thanks to them people are now trained in reading satire, and want to attempt it.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just handed in a book to David, which is a sideways shift from The Competent Authority. It’s a detective science fiction story-cum-comedy set in Calcutta under Chinese rule. Both the Bengalis and Chinese are equally horrified by the situation they find themselves in. The vast majority of key characters are Chinese and I, of course, know nothing about China. It’s probably even worse than The Competent Authority.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 10:47:22 AM |

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