Monday, 4 June 2012

More Questions than Answers

While I and the rest of the IFFP Shadow Panel were still pondering the fate of our chosen shortlist, Mark let us know of another interesting book he was reading.  Written by C.Y. Gopinath, an Indian journalist and non-fiction writer, The Book of Answers has been shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Writers Prize.  While the novel has been published normally in India, the writer still has the rights for the rest of the world, and he was happy to allow any of us who wanted a read to download an e-version at Smashwords - an offer I was too intrigued to turn down...

The story is set in India in 2015, where elections for the newly created position of Grand Convener are soon to take place.  Enigmatic (read evil) politician Shri Ishwar Prasad is hoping to strengthen his claim on power with new popular policies, one of which is abolishing the need for students to actually study for exams, instead making them go and find the answers (this is the Google age after all...).  This is all a little confusing for the elegantly-named Patros Patranobis, an average man wishing only for a quiet life, and the Mumbai accountant tries to ignore as much as possible of what is happening on the political scene.  Sadly for him though, one day, while running for the bus, he (literally) bumps into a plump gentleman - this is the start of a very unhappy time for the unfortunate Mr. Patranobis...

You see, the plump gentleman in question is a lawyer, and he is bringing Patros a bequest, a very special book called 'The Book of Answers'.  It is said to contain the answers to all the problems of the world, and soon, after a leaked report from a blog (!), the whole country is keen to know what exactly it says.  Patros, however, is not particularly interested, and despite the protests of his partner Rose, he decides to offload the rather heavy item to a rag-and-bone man.

What follows is a chaotic journey around India in which the reader is treated to a snapshot of all that is corrupt and broken in the world's largest democracy.  The Grand Convener's plans for the country, including a truly ingenious (and morally suspect) plan to eradicate poverty and a wonderfully inventive revenue-raising initiative, horrify our hapless hero - even more so when it turns out that the justification for, the provenance of, these crazy schemes is 'The Book of Answers'.  Poor Patros soon realises that these claims are lies - you see, there's a key to the book, and nobody knows where it is...

The Book of Answers is a humorous, chaotic look at politics in a country where rules are not so much set in stone as casually scratched in the sand, there to be followed or ignored depending on your status.  Poor Pat is a wonderful everyman character, a simple fellow who just wants a bit of peace and some affection from the fiery Rose.  Sadly for him, his friends, family and enemies seem to need him to be a symbol, a figure to rally around or demonise.  The more he sinks into the mire of Indian politics, the clearer it is that nothing can be settled until the mystery of the book is settled once and for all.

Gopinath's humour comes across on almost every page, from the collision which sets the whole affair in motion, to the mysterious figure of Tippy, Pat's son, a character who is always at least one step ahead of both his father and the reader.  The humour is helped by the language the writer uses, a sing-song variety of English which is slightly unfamiliar to speakers of British or American English.  Apart from the obvious vocabulary differences between the varieties of the language, sentences like the following -
"A gangly boy was playing awful guitar to an admiring girl, also gangly."
catch the reader's eye, dragging them into the story.

It's not a perfect book by any means.  Anyone expecting lyrical elegance à la Vikram Seth or Salman Rushdie will be a little disappointed.  It's more Bollywood than high literature, which is not a bad thing, of course (and, set largely in Mumbai, it's probably apt too!).  It's highly plot driven, and certain sections give you the feeling that some large holes need to be fixed, and this was the best way to do it (a conversation with a circus lady and a couple of days in the country with a dog certainly come to mind here).

On the whole though The Book of Answers is an amusing, thought-provoking novel.  Behind the humour, there is a very serious message about the nature of power corrupting and the inability of democracy, particularly in a country with such extremes of wealth and poverty, to stop this corruption.  The Grand Convener's political  beliefs sum up the situation perfectly:
"A politician is nothing unless he is in his chair, in power.  According to my doctrine, for this he needs three things: constituency, currency and chaos.  Never forget those words.  The three C's."
It is the third of these three Cs that permeates The Book of Answers.  In an attempt to confuse opponents and profit from uncertainty to cling to power, the Grand Convener will do all he can to cause chaos throughout the country.  If that involves abolishing the need for people to actually study in order to pass exams, so be it ;)

If you're a fan of novels set in India and enjoy mysteries underlaid with a rich vein of humour, I'd definitely recommend The Book of Answers.  I'm very grateful that the writer offered me the chance to read it, and I hope it does well, even if it didn't make it to the final list of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.  It is a book which sometimes hits a lot closer to home than you'd like, and for all its levity, there is a very serious side to it.  It's not often that a book manages to end on the perfect note, but Gopinath really nails the landing here - a very telling and sombre finale indeed...

For more reviews of this book, follow the links to Mark's and Gary's takes on it :)