This appered in The Sunday Tribune
Reviewed by Aruti Nayar
shobhaa Deshobhaa De’s novel, after a hiatus of 10 years, claims to do for politics, what Starry Nights did to Bollywood. For everyone fed up of the scams and scandals, the credibility quotient of the political class is at an all-time low and the dedication right at the beginning of the book, "To our beloved politicians. May their tribe decrease," is bound to strike a chord with the middle class.
The same is true of the saying "The arrow shot by the archer may or may not kill a single person. But strategems devised by wise men can kill even babies in the womb, by Kautilya. De shows us the varied shades of a politician’s life. As she traces the career graph of Sethji, a prototype of an average neta, who has a set of skills that he hones assiduously to come up trumps, it is vintage Shobhaa De. Visual descriptions and a dexterous moving back and forth with an elan marks the manner in which De manages to flesh out the central character Sethji, his daughter-in-law Amrita and sons Srichand (Amrita’s laid-back husband) and the profligate Suraj.
Portayal of wheels-within-wheels and machinations make the narrative racy. To avoid monotony, there are sub-plots that intersect the main thread and are interwoven with it.
The businessman-politician nexus is defined with the relationship between Arun Mehta, Jaipraksh and MK who has a strange relationship with Amrita. Sethji, of course, remains the protagonist and just as the reader thinks, he has been "decoded," one discovers a new trait about the wily man who is not quite the main character, even though the novel is named after him.
The main character who is also the one through whose voice the narrative unfolds is Amrita, the beautiful daughter-in-law (and mistress) of Sethji — the fulcrum of the book as well as of the lives of the characters. It is in the delineation of the character of Amrita that Shobhaa De excels herself. Be it her latent sexuality, her razor-sharp intelligence and the "mind of a man," that makes her organise, plot and use and throw people with ease. In the portrayal of Amrita, Shobhaa De breaks all stereotypes and one can sense she is close to the author’s heart. As Sethji says, "Unlike most women, your brain functions like a man’s, it is capable of hard, unemotional decisions. It is ruthless when required." Here is not an archetypal woman but an atypical one who uses her thinking function much more than the feeling one. A stunner, she knows how to use her body to her advantage and is almost an alter ego of the manipulative Sethji. No wonder, they together generate tremendous synergy. Running the household with a clinical clockwork precision or plotting a murder or lying with elan even in the full glare of the TV cameras about her delinquent brother-in-law, Amrita can pull it off convincingly. One wonders why the author did not call the book Amritaji! De’s use of a language that is a mixture of colloquial and street language, peppered by Hindi cuss words makes the narrative raw and gives it an energy. Overuse of abuses and expletives do jar and interrupt the flow at times.
The two parts, Delhi and Mumbai, seeks to highlight the way politics works differently at both the places. One can see the inspiration for the man who controls Mumbai, Bhau, has shades of the late Shiv Sena supremo. Also the premium on giving contracts, the world of contract killers and the politicians- film directors-financers nexus is etched.
De’s Sethji is sanitised, not fleshed out with a reality check when it comes to capturing the essence of a politician’s life along with the rough and tumble, sights and sounds. In fact, the neta’s portrayal appears photoshopped and airbrushed and also ". It’s obvious, despite Sethji being in De’s head for more than a decade, she has never experienced politics first-hand. Starry Nights was home ground but politics is a different ballgame altogether. At times one gets the feeling that one is watching a potboiler and style overwhelms substance and makes the book almost surreal. A "confession" in the acknowledgments towards the end leaves the reader startled. De admits being fascinated by the late Sitaram Kesri and wants to thank him for motivating her to create Sethji. One wonders how. That, of course, is another story