One hack of a novel
Arun Gaur

Hacks and Headlines
by Rashme Sehgal.
IndiaInk. Roli Books, New Delhi. Pages 319. Rs 295.

Hacks and HeadlinesTHERE seems to be a conscious play on the words "hacks", "head" and "headlines" in the title of the novel. Paro, a Yadav, elopes with Jano, a Jatav. Consequently, Paroís uncle, Pappu Yadav, gets their heads hacked. It is an everyday crime that could have easily passed off un-noticed.

Dalip Jha, special correspondent of the Calcutta-based The Morning Chronicle, reports it only half-heartedly; for him, it is only hack-writing, until certain developments in the power circles of Delhi twist this into being significant.

FERA charges are slapped against the father of Vikram Aggarwal, who owns the newspaper The Indian Sentinel. To get out of this muddle, it is necessary to topple the government at the Centre. Caste-killing proves its utility and becomes a vital social issue to be played up to pull down the empire.

The ministers, the bureaucrats, the police, the parties, the villagers and the media are suddenly sucked into this battle. Hack reports turn into prominent and crucial headlines. Imbued with the ghostly power of demolishing reputations and bringing down coalition governments, these are splashed across the papers, national and international. In the end, the hackers are themselves killed (hacked, metaphorically).

The title is peculiarly apt and summarises much of the tale. However, it is between the fatal beginning and the end (the two hackings) that a more gruesome tale is told of human misery, cunning mind, savagery, avarice and lust. It is a great bitter drama, softened by filial tenderness and ideal visions of thorough professionals, in which nearly all characters commit sins that cannot be forgiven. The novelist, a veteran journalist, reduces the majority of them to degenerated humans.

This reduction is brought about by the persistent use of the mask technique present everywhere in the novel. Hardly anyone is spared. Vikram Aggarwal, who claims: "I am carrying the weight of the nation on my shoulders," has money stashed in Swiss bank accounts. To avoid detection, he gets Attar Singh, a lowly worker and an affectionate father, eliminated.

Leelawati, UPís Chief Minister, embarks upon a padyatra to offer the Dalits an empty assurance: "I am leaving my phone number behind. If anyone dares to raise his voice against any of you, just dial this number."

Raveena Bedi, the journalist, is "a master at smooth talk" and knows how to "selectively deploy [it] with her amorous bosses"; SSP Kamal Seth banks upon publicity stunts to acquire a celebrity status; Inder, the bureau chief, "under the pretext of reading their stories" feels up women correspondents; and the wife of Prime Minister Ananda Krishnan, a south Indian, establishes a bharatnatyam school to earn generous funds. Every instance of mask gets associated with either parody or caricature, or grotesquerie or humour because of the inherent irony.

There are some interesting and intriguing allusions and references to the real-life situations and persons. The debauched Raveena Bedi has the audacious privilege of dialing the homes of Sharad Pawar, Pramod Mahajan and Chandrashekhar after midnight and the identity of Leelawati, who shouts: "Kunwarin hoon, chamarin hoon," is anybodyís guess.

This well-constructed novel falters at the beginning. It is a chronic problem, as the Indian novel in English has not been able to invent rustic dialogue, so far. The back of the book reveals the entire story, particularly its end, which robs the reader of half the joy.

It appears that the novelist derives his strength from the great bitter energy laced with ironic humour. One may call it a fine novel written in righteous bitterness or a righteous novel written in fine bitterness.