Red tape and white lies
Balwinder Kaur

The Householder
By Amitabha Bagchi. Fourth Estate. Pages 239. Rs 399.

The HouseholderCorruption and embezzlement have become as much a part of our government as the rules they subvert and the system they blight; the ugly truth is that we live in a kleptocracy. The Householder by Amitabha Bagchi takes us behind the headlines of these bureaucratic and political scams that have become a news staple and tries to answer the questions; what kinds of people do these things and how these things happen. But it is set in the life of a family man, namely, Naresh Kumar. From Naresh Kumar's vantage point, the author takes a close and candid look at the socio-political climate of our times and the morally bankrupt atmosphere prevalent.

"Naresh Kumar, PA to Shri R.K. Asthana, IAS, is his boss's doorkeeper. There is a share for Naresh in the bounties that flow through the door, and there has been for years." So Naresh Kumar is living a life not exactly free from care but nonetheless it is much to his liking. All the trappings of a comfortable life are there; a decent home, an agreeable marriage and two children. But under this respectable fa`E7ade lurks his contempt for his wife, his resentment of living within his so-called means, his unfilial son and his daughter's troubled marriage.

Naresh Kumar's ill-gotten gains have given him an overinflated sense of self-worth and he has little self-awareness. He justifies his corruption with the excuse of merely doing his duty as the provider of his household. But all is not well in the old homestead and he doesnít realise that it has been a long time in the making, having lined up many of the falling dominos with his own two hands. Meanwhile, trouble is also brewing at work and he is blindsided when a departmental inquiry results in his suspension. Dislodged from his comfortable position of power and prestige, his world is thrown off kilter. All this upheaval coincides serendipitously with the traditional timing of a mid-life crisis. Naresh Kumar is a man conflicted and is unable to reconcile the dichotomy of his existence. His life is built on a bedrock of lies and he is wholly unprepared for all the instability that comes with such a weak foundation. He is very self-aggrandising, with little awareness of his place in the grand scheme of things. He absolves any pangs of guilt by justifying his actions as necessary to ensure his familyís well being; which he considers his main duty. In a stunning display of cognitive dissonance, he completely distances himself from all his actions thereby disavowing their consequences. And soon he retreats to a rich fantasy life and indulges notions of an affair.

Amitabha Bagchiís choice of protagonist and setting ensures that the notions, situations and characters are all relatable. With remarkable brevity, the author captures the attitudes, behaviour and the finer nuances of interactions among people in the story. By describing the tone of their voice, choice of words, facial expressions and body language, he makes the readers feel that these are people that they have met and known; their attitudes and mindsets are all too familiar. A jaded and critical eye observes the proceedings and the words convey a disdain that is apropos for the subject matter. The writing is straightforward and doesnít skirt unpleasant and unsavoury matters. It is a mellow read, there are few twists and revelations and it ambles along at its own pace; evocative of the non-eventful daily lives of most people. The book seldom escapes its mundane setting.

Naresh Kumar is a morally bankrupt product of these dark times. He feels no guilt or culpability; considering himself merely a cog in a twisted machine. He has no trouble at all distancing himself from all wrongdoing, both his own and that which he is complicit to. The only problems he and his acolytes face occur when they canít decide on a mutually agreeable share of the loot. The most elusive thing thematically speaking remains accountability. All involved pay no real price for their actions, neither personal nor professional. So the book serves up little in the way of just desserts, character development or moral lessons but perhaps it is simply a case of art imitating life.