Vile bodies: Review of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Villainy 

Upamanyu Chatterjee is back with his characteristic black humour but the verve is missing

Updated - May 06, 2022 08:08 pm IST

Published - April 30, 2022 04:00 pm IST

Representational photo. Review of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Villainy 

Representational photo. Review of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Villainy  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

The focal point of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel Villainy is the crime, not the punishment. The institutions meant to contain crimes are hand-in-glove with criminals. This is not a moral story of the Dostoyevskian crime-and-punishment kind but a literary thriller in the mode of Agatha Christie or James Hadley Chase.

Set in Delhi of the late 90s, it begins with a who-done-it episode: an unidentified dead body is found in a park, and nobody going about their morning walks there is ready to call the police. Immediately confronting the banality of villainy thus, the story goes back by 19 years. Pukhraj, the spoilt brat of a wealthy saraf, is a gambler with a penchant for foreign cars, drugs and guns. In contrast, his friend Parmatma, son of the family driver Atmaram, is studious and hard-working. When Pukhraj is on a joyride in his father’s Mercedes, a bus turns from the wrong side and hits it. Pukhraj shoots the driver dead.

Principle of uncertainty

Rich parents and ‘well-wishers’ of Pukhraj try to fix the crime on Parmatma, bribe the judge and manipulate the police system in Pukhraj’s favour. Within the thriller plot, there is a sharp criticism of modern institutions, including prisons, hospitals, the judiciary and the police. When Pukhraj comes out of jail, he shoots one more person point-blank, and his Bentley hits a man urinating in the dark.

“As a thriller, it does not offer much, except for plot twists and turns. But it is perfect for a screen adaptation: I felt as if I were watching a Bollywood potboiler”

The novel thus drives home the point that “the principles of villainy and uncertainty appear to be beguilingly similar. They are both terribly all-pervasive, for one, and further, one can never be fully certain either of what constitutes villainy, of whether it is not governed, just as much as the principle of uncertainty, by the four cardinal characteristics of time, location, movement and spin”. As a thriller, it does not offer much, except for plot twists and turns. But it is perfect for a screen adaptation: I felt as if I were watching a Bollywood potboiler.

Chatterjee’s much-acclaimed novel English, August was made into a moderately successful film, of course. But while English, August was based on Chatterjee’s experience as a civil servant, Villainy is an outcome of his research into the business of black money and the prison system.

Virtues of brevity

Chatterjee emerges as a good ethnographer, meticulously documenting minute details of institutions and systems. However, in this age of SMS and fast food, the novel might have stood better if it had been brief. As compensation for the reader, there’s Chatterjee’s signature dark humour. Also, the omniscient narrator strikes a balance between his own voice and that of the characters, letting them grow according to their whims and fancies, choices and constraints.

This is not a great novel, but not a bad one either. We are not yet sure about the death of the novel form, but the genre is certainly undergoing a crisis, challenged with different forms of creativity in the new media. Chatterjee’s old-fashioned craft provides an occasion for us to reflect on what it means to write and read novels now.

Villainy; Upamanyu Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger, ₹699. The writer teaches English Literature at Tumkur University, Karnataka.

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