Sunday, April 25, 2004

A very Soviet coup
Nirupama Dutt

When the Vulture Descends
by Mandeep Rai. UBSPD, Pages 522. Rs. 350

When the Vulture DescendsINDIAN fiction in English has certainly come of age and is now showing diverse trends. First come the novels which are hyped even before they are written. Then come novels that do not make news headlines for heavy advance given in millions, but have a sincerity of purpose and prove a good read. Next are novels by lesser-known authors written in the mould of American bestsellers and they surprise the reader with their astute handling of the plot.

Mandeep Rai's novel belongs to the third kind. In well-knit prose spread over 500 pages, Rai builds the disastrous scenario of the Soviet takeover of India through an army coup that mercifully never happened in democratic India. But what if it had happened? This is the premise that the author explores and very convincingly at that.

The novel opens with journalists eagerly awaiting the outcome of a meeting of the two factions of the Democratic Party. Everyone is wondering whether the two factions of the party will be able to unite and rise from obscurity again. Will they be able to find a capable leader? The parties do unite under the dynamic leadership of an upcoming star called R.K. Kamath. Commenting on his emergence on the national political scene, special correspondent Ken Stephens, whose story runs parallel to that of Kamath in the narrative, writes: "There are shades of Sardar Patel in the man. On the other hand he talks as piously as the Mahatma, Indian politics has not seen such a figure in the last 30 years."

The Kamath saga had begun well before his emergence on the national political scene. Onkar Singh, a committed Communist, grooms young and idealistic Kamath to rebuild an egalitarian Indian society opposed to individual profit and in favour of equal opportunity for all. Kamath is sent to Russia, ostensibly to study management techniques at the Leningrad University. Seeing Kamath's earnestness, Prof Peter Vladimor discovers that the young man from India hardly needs any indoctrination for his views are more often than not stronger than Peter's.

So Kamath rises slowly as the nation's leader, of course with Soviet backing. The dream still holds, for as the novelist puts it: "The eagerness of the Russians was like that of a vulture that slowly circles in the sky when far below in some desert or barren land it sees a lone man walking aimlessly to his death. The vulture has patience. As long as it remains high up the man below is safe. But when the vulture descends`85" Yes, it does descend with assassinations, army coup and dictatorship of Kamath. But Kamath's dream turns into disillusionment when he realises that instead of bringing about an equal order, he has been instrumental in bringing more misery to the common folk. His urge is to walk half-naked like a fakir into the sunset but even that is not to be.

Moving at the pace of a thriller, the novel touches the readerís humane side through the story of Sandy, wife of journalist Stephens, and Neena, the young motherless daughter of Kamath. The political events are punctuated after a while with some sex so as to have the right mix.

Set at the height of the Cold War, an era that is way back in history, the novel is not designed to create any ripples. Of course, there are some humorous insights like Kamath tuning into Radio Moscow to see if Raj Kapoor's Awara tune is playing because that means the Russians want a date with him. Then there is S.K. Malhotra, a freelance journalist, who sells reports of the political meeting for Rs 600 each to the Russian Embassy and then resells them to the American Embassy for three times the amount. What comes through is the corruption of the political system with Hindu-Muslim riots, farcical dramas and power games which remains unchanged ó vulture or no vulture.