Rumblings in the Underbelly

Book: Sethji

Author: Shobhaa De

Publisher: Penguin

Price: Rs 250

Pages: 290

Shobhaa De's eighth novel Sethji is quite a pot-simmerer, where its best parts are not its dominant flavour. Sethji, a ruthlessly ambitious man raised in Mirpur in Uttar Pradesh, survives childhood diphtheria and the dark disillusions of a lesser life. But he stabs life right back and becomes the leader of ABSP, a coalition party in the government. His wife Leelaji is only a garlanded photograph when we meet him. His two sons Srichand and Suraj symbolise failure from paradoxical positions — one a wimp, the other a rapist; both equally useless. His daughter-in-law Amrita — attractive, wounded in love and sexually frustrated in her marriage with Srichand is our heroine, then. A flawed goddess who cultivates tolerance, for all that comes with dirty politics. She hands Sethji familial solace and passive sex (making sure there is hot food always), dispassionately.

As the story rakes out rogues in a noir saga of revenge, greed, sexual triumph and turmoil, Amrita stands out as the most passionate and nuanced character. We are unable to shake her off even as clichés chase us: the rape victim is a "chinky" Northeastern girl; Dubai is the escape destination for the narcissistic Suraj; Delhi parties occur in farmhouses; an ex-cop runs an escort service buzzing with Russian and Ukrainian girls; there is a cheeky item girl from Bollywood ready to sleep with politicians; the saffron-robe-loving Bhau, one of Sethji's biggest enemies, who controls Maharashtra and Kavita Saxena, the "Bhartiya naari" complete with sindoor. There are lawyers and leaders, a fascination for Bollywood, some sex and steam and even a man who delivers DVDs along with child porn and drugs.

Similarities with Indian politicians play hide-and-seek with the text but De ensures that the game is never revealed. Disappointingly, there are no deep explorations of existentialist dilemmas. No one deals with the silent ghosts of immorality and corruption. Everyone is both victim and perpetrator of injustice, so it all clusters up. If a perfect world is bookish and unconvincing, so is the imperfect world which is Sethji's. Nothing that De tells us about vicious politicians is astonishing — is it because we are so used to living in a debased society that murders, rapes, conspiracies and betrayals fail to disturb us?

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