Stories from beyond the grave, both in the cinema (the film by Sam Mendes american beauty) or literature (most recently, Shehan Karunatilaka’s Booker-winning novel The Seven Moons by Maali Almeida), are the kind of bold storytelling moves that require a steady, sure hand at the wheel. Otherwise, the timelines, emotional beats, and metaphorical heft fly out the window the moment you get the reader/audience’s undivided attention. Karan Madhok’s debut novel, A nice decay (Aleph Books), uses the narrative device of the underworld perfectly. We meet the protagonist-narrator Vishnu Agarwal, a 21-year-old Indian computer science student, at the moment he is killed in a Washington, DC bar by a disgruntled and recently fired white man.
In death, Vishnu acquires a kind of omniscience (“Ad infinitum behenchod”) which offers him (and readers) a very important perspective on his life and eventual disappearance: the question of his caste and class privileges in his country , his father Shankar’s (and by extension his own) complicity in communal violence in India, and so much more.
By Gabriel García Marquez Chronicle of a death foretold it interrogated linear cause and effect in the context of its central character’s death, but the “interrogation” was journalistic. Madhok’s overall concerns remain philosophical, even spiritual, like A nice decay puts together a remarkable commentary on transnationalism, privilege and the politics of hate.
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Speaking about the book during a video interview, Madhok, 38, spoke of the distinctive narrative voice that Vishnu possesses, not quite Hinglish, with a constant supply of Hindi interjections to drive the action forward (“Suno” “Samjhe naa?” and so away are interspersed with rather American-sounding phrases).
A Beautiful Decay: by Karan Madhok, Aleph Book Company, 296 pages, £699.
“It didn’t take me long to create that voice on the page because that’s almost the language I think in,” Madhok said. “I carry that blend inside me. I am from Varanasi and have family in DC. So for me, adding the Hindi, the suno, dekho, samjho– was a very natural part of my everyday speech. Of course, Vishnu doesn’t speak quite like me; he swears a lot more, for example, and has other recurring diversions.
One of A nice decay The most fascinating character is Vishnu’s father Shankar, a wealthy businessman from Varanasi. His upward mobility – from running a decrepit hotel in Ayodhya to owning his own blown glass jewelery business – is marked by his growing complicity in violence. Some of the people who brought down the Babri Masjid, we are shown, stayed in his hotel.
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Subsequently, he is much more directly involved in anti-Muslim violence, which leads to his eldest son, Rishi, being separated from the family. His philosophy is utilitarian to the point of cruelty, but, as Madhok shows us again and again, Shankar’s position is common in modern India, where progress is so often a zero-sum game.
See how Shankar advises Vishnu at one point: “Your brother would deny it, Vishnu, but you have to understand. Someone always has to suffer for you to sit here and be comfortable, use that new phone, study at a great college. We already told you, right? Your comfort is someone else’s catastrophe, you understand?
Madhok talked about this aspect of the story during the interview. “It’s almost Shankar’s way of making his son a little more ruthless and a little less empathetic,” he said. “The zero-sum thing is certainly true for many Indians who made their fortunes after the liberalization of the economy, like Vishnu’s father did. I’m not generalizing here, but for many of them, upward mobility happened as a result of… some sin, stepping on someone else or beating them in this race for resources. They win and many other people who were at their economic level remain stagnant at that level. This is the vision of the world that he has experienced and it is what he is passing on to his son.
However, A nice decay he is not always bothered by this sociological way of analyzing privilege and oppression. From time to time, Madhok’s prose takes Vishnu to truly strange places, a freedom which is in part the result of the device beyond the grave.
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Newfound omniscience means he can explore the past and present of his friends and family at will, including his American friends Hamid and Jess, his estranged brother Rishi, even the man who will eventually kill him in that bar in Washington, DC. And then there are these standalone vignettes depicting Vishnu’s new cosmic mode, where he meditates on life, the universe and everything in between, just like the narrator of the TV series Mahabharata announcing “Main samay hoon” (I am time itself), at the beginning of each episode.
Vishnu observes, “There are women dancing in the ancient acropolis of Dholavira and androids rhyming shers to a mushaira, earning waah-waah from an impressed human audience. Haan haan, I have my chakra too: the thick tuft of hair between my eyes, the unibrow I inherited from my father and which I tried so feverishly to trim and shave in shame.
Madhok spoke about these experimental vignette steps (which appear in italics), explaining that they were part of the plan from day one. “One thing I’d give my editors credit for is that they wanted me to explore this on my own,” Madhok said. “It was presented differently from the rest of the text and gave me the freedom to think of them as separate narrative strands.”
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A nice decay is an extremely confident and thoroughly entertaining debut from Madhok, who was also a part of the recent Aleph anthology A case of Indian wonders, which contained short stories by Indian writers under the age of 40. Packed with wit, wisdom, and linguistic flair, this is a novel that will soon be on many year-end lists.
Aditya Mani Jha is a writer from Delhi.