Reading Amitabha Bagchi’s “The Householder” against the backdrop of the ongoing India Against Corruption protests taking place in Delhi at the moment made the book doubly enjoyable.
While we are all being subjected to daily revelations of the levels of loot and corruption at the top echelons of power in India, this book acts almost as a prelude. As a prequel, to use that ugly but useful word.
We are not dealing with the Robert Vadra stratosphere here, but we do see that right down at the bottom of the food chain, corruption and bribery are all part and parcel of doing business in India.
The book tells the story of one Mr. Naresh Kumar, a lower-middle-class government employee in Delhi. He lives in simple government-provided accommodation, as befits a lowly civil servant. Mr. Kumar is the “gatekeeper” for a bureaucrat, Mr. Asthana. Naresh Kumar sits literally outside his boss’s plush office, deciding who can and cannot get access to the great man. As such, Mr. Kumar needs to be sweetened and persuaded by the supplicants, and so, slowly and steadily over the years, Mr. Kumar has feathered his own little nest. Nothing on the lavish scale of his boss, of course, but for a simple man, Naresh Kumar has done well by himself and his family.
He keeps his head down, hides his wealth, which is why that Rs 30,000 sofa from a shop in Ghitorni is a bone of contention. His wife Arti is unduly proud of it and likes to boast a little about how expensive it was. Naresh warns her that telling her friends and envious neighbours how much is cost will only invite speculation.
Naresh’s late colleague, Harkirat, on the other hand was scrupulously honest and was known never to take a bribe. Naresh helped his widow Pinki get a job in his office and the two of them lead a close companionable working life. Naresh is possibly a little too fond of Pinki, but keeps his thoughts and feelings to himslef.
There are several stories interwoven in the novel.
We meet Naresh’s newly married daughter Seema, whose mother-in-law frets increasingly about her inability to produce a grandchild, and takes her frustration out on the poor girl. Her son Ashok, already a more powerful man than his father-in-law, is caught between his mother and his young wife, and his attitude to the latter makes him one of the book’s more interesting secondary characters.
Naresh’s son Praveen gets way out of his depth in the world of Delhi sleaze, but he survives, and we see how even a little bit player like him can work the system. Some poor innocent will take the rap for his boss’s crime, and Praveen sees no problem with this.
Pinki, the level-headed loyal widow, steers a clear, moral path through the book, kindly rejecting two men who love her, out of loyalty for her late husband, Harkirat, who is a minor character in his own (absent) way, his inflexible honesty serving as a foil to everyone else’s behaviour.
Corruption is the leitmotiv for this book which brings vividly to life the world of lower middle class Delhi colonies, with their cheek-by-jowl flats, their dusty communal gardens, and the endless hanging around and waiting on people that is necessary to get anything done.
Published in 2012 by Fourth Estate, the hardback costs Rs 399.
A good read.
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