Hard-hitting satire
Uma Vasudeva

The Book of Answers: A Novel
By C. Y. Gopinath.
HarperCollins. Rs 499. Pages 337.

The Book of Answers: A NovelPATROS Patronobis, the hero of the novel, has a bland and boring life, which is further shattered when he inherits a book with answers to the problems of the world. All that Patros wants is to be left aloneóto live his ordinary, simple, lacklustre and unremarkable life with Rose, the woman he has not married, and Tippy, the son he has not fathered. Tippy, a 17 years young lad, has been shown as a casual brat "wearing insufferable, sack-like trousers and pierced navel" not interested in education.

One day Patros receives a mysterious, metal-bound book, a bequest from a long-dead ancestor. He is told that the book has all the answers to the problems and sufferings of the world. However, there is one hitch: The Book of Answers is locked and cannot be read because its key is hidden somewhere in Kerala.

Characteristically, Patros does not really want to make the world a comfortable, better and peaceful place by unravelling the answers. In order to get rid of this burdensome and riddle-solving book, he sells it to a junk shop, thinking that his problems will get sorted out to live peacefully. But the real madness begins thereafter. Luckily, the book finds its way to Tarachand Sagar, a taxi-driver and small-time maverick stuntman who lifts weight by the locks of his hair to earn popularity. Within a few months, The Book of Answers reappears in the hands of a godman claiming that through it, God speaks to him. The godman starts advising the most powerful politician in the land, the ruthless and crook Ishwar Prasad. Ishwar Prasad unleashes a slew of Orwellian laws citing the book as the divine source on this earth.

The book is compulsively readable. One would not like to skim passages for fear of missing any of the gems scattered across every page. The author sketches his hugely entertaining characters with sure and economical strokes. All characters are portrayed well, from the Convener and the godman to B Plus and the "doctor of venereal diseases", with his very entertaining medical examination of Patros and Rose, the central characters.

The authorís treatment of Indian English, meanwhile, is both warmly funny and minimalist, and in no way obtrusive. In the course of one entertaining dialogue, for example, "codswallop" devolves by stages into "shit". "More banging for a buck", in another conversation, is enough to comically conjure, without further ado, the voice author wanted. "Gourment" is how Indian bureaucrats pronounce "government", and it includes connotations sorely missing in the conventional expression.

The book is also a structural success. Among other features, it presents an excellent conclusion, something too many otherwise good novels lack. En route, the author consistently leaves the reader hanging at the end of each chapter, wanting more, and introduces each successive chapter with a surprise.

In the first chapter, the heroís proto-obsessive compulsive negotiation of Mumbaiís streets and his collision with the Fat Man is superbly realised. And "what an idea" is introduced shortly thereafter.

The story as a whole is a delightful tapestry woven from such threads as the eponymous book itself; the Ministry for Errors and Regrets; Roseís scrapbook of omens; the dynamic between Pat, his friend Arindam, and Rose, who surprisingly turns out to be Arindamís wife; Patís comic love-life with Rose; and the rather moving development of Patís relationship with his son, Tippy, tipped back in a chair munching chewing gum. Some of the interesting dialogues quoted are:

"We live in times of world of Kali Yug, as we say in the scriptures. The Convener believes our country is in doldrums. Gourment is committed but man can only do so much. Shri Ishwar Prasad is facing challenges of lifetime, struggling with national problems such as upcoming elections, crime, literacy, terrorism, democracy, womenís liberation, abortion, sexual slavery, judicial backlog, and a bankrupt treasury". The the book meets an ironic end. Little Tippy hurls it out of the window with the key. "Making lives better does not need a manual," the child says with the angry wisdom of the young.

The book is a sharp satire about how the corrupt, and the powerful can manipulate an unreflective society. This book contains content that may not be suitable for young readers under 18.