May 3, 2012 by markstani
Literary shortlists don’t come too much better than the Asian regional section of this year’s Commonwealth Book Prize. Four of the titles – Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (this blog’s 2011 Book of the Year), Shehan Karunatilaka’s DSC Prize-winning Chinaman, Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth and Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company Of People Who Care have already been reviewed and feted here. The fifth, CY Gopinath’s The Book Of Answers, richly deserves its place among such elevated company.
No doubt, ‘The Book Of Answers’ is a strange and unusual book. It seems entirely fitting that it should arrive in a strange and unusual way: published with sub-continental rights only by HarperCollins last year, the author has taken it upon himself to reach a wider audience by self-publishing. It is fully available via the e-book platform Smashwords.
Not that such things unduly matter much when it comes to content. And it is there that the real uniqueness of’The Book Of Answers’ lies. Set in an Orwellian near-future in India, the story revolves around a happily unremarkable man by the name of Patros Patranobis, whose life of inconsequence is shattered when he receives a hefty, metal-bound book, an apparent bequest from some ancient relative.
The Book Of Answers purports to solve all the world’s problems, but it can only be opened by a key to be found somewhere in Kerala. So Patronobis does what any self-respecting unremarkable, inconsequential man would do when faced with such a burdensome situation: he sells the book to a second-hand skin-flick store for thirty-five rupees.
Months later, the book reappears in the hands of a self-styled (and faintly familiar) Godman, who is acting as spiritual adviser to one of India’s most powerful politicians, Ishwar Prasad. Claiming divine intervention, Prasad passes a slew of laws designed to consolidate his push for power: the FYI Act, legalising cheating in examinations; the Happiness Tax, imposing a levy on sexual intercourse, and the 50-50 Law, proposing to partition India into two states: rich and poor. All laws, according to Prasad, which have been passed down from his Godman via the book – and thus, by inference, by God himself. Unbeknown to the public, the book remains unopened, because only one man is capable of finding the key. Not that its self-appointed guardians are in any rush to find it: as the author points out, there is nothing more dangerous than a book no-one has read.
The more the bumbling, endearing Patronobis tries to extricate himself from his situation and return to his anonymous, quiet life, the deeper he becomes inveigled in the political conspiracy. With each speech designed to resign his assigned role as some kind of national liberator-in-waiting, he becomes more of a talisman, his reticence mistaken for humility.
Eventually, inevitably, Kerala beckons. But who or what he will find there is unclear to everyone, not least Patronobis, as this bizarre, unpredictable novel winds towards its conclusion.
What makes ‘The Book Of Answers’ so good is that behind the general, clumsy humour, the preposterous satires on corruptive power and the life-affirming ode to ambivalence, lies a serious essay on faith and trust, and an example of the shocking ease with which it is is possible to manipulate the masses.
The concept behind the FYI Act would be laughable if it hadn’t already been pursued in various diluted forms in the real world: think, by way of a random example, of Hugo Chavez pandering directly to the poor and hitherto disenfranchised communities of Venezuela.
“Illiteracy is a number that is decided by a test. Quite arbitrary. Drop the test and you have abolished illiteracy. The FYI Act is born. With a wave of my wand, I make all the fools literate. Now, passing school easily, they will go to college and earn their degrees. Millions of Indians thoroughly unfit to work will get jobs. Unemployment will disappear. In the process, Ishwar Prasad has wooed and wed crores of a once-marginalized constituency of morons and no-hopers. They will all vote for me.”
This is a thoroughly readable and thought-provoking book. Some parts are destined to remain unfathomable (I’m not sure I will ever fully understand what the role of the Circus Lady was in the general conspiracy) – but I guess that’s kind of the point. What is certainly clear is that it deserves its place on the shortlist, and beyond that, on the shelves of western bookstores.