In the last two decades, the Indian middle class has been forced into so many euphoric ‘growth’ stories, it seems to have already outgrown this euphoria and landed into utter despair. Montek Singh Alhuwalia, ‘growth’ mafioso and Planning Commission deputy chairman – who I always imagine as being at home in Jay Gatsby’s parties, drinking himself into the Great Depression – said that ‘India’s middle class is massive but they have one thing in common – to move ahead, up, onward. Why look at the past?’ Hurtling ahead at such great speed must be painful, especially when it comes with a dictum to disremember one’s own past. Rajorshi Chakraborti’s Lost Men catches the selfish, self-entitled middle-class protagonists in their impossible projects of forgetting their past, who having ‘grown’ are now exhausted, bedeviled and – the title says it – lost.
The first time you see the contents page of Rajorshi Chakraborti’s book, it looks like a collection of short-stories. It is actually a medley of pieces whose common anchor might be the short-story but each of them sail in different directions, stretching the genre into different shapes, making it do at times scathing work. Of the ten pieces, at least two are like flash-fiction (a form given to cheap surprise), four are short short-stories (given to revelations as you go along), three are long short-stories (given to drawing out pain and paranoia) and the last one is a breathtaking novella ‘Down to Experience’ that deserved a slim book all of its own. Although Chakraborti’s art shines more as his forms lengthen, the short-story genre is perfect for his chosen object – with its surprise, its revelations and its pain – to show how being caught between huge self-entitlement and an equally huge self-pity, as the Indian middle class is, his protagonists plot the absurdity of their own lives. But ‘plot’ only as a depressive can do, helplessly, incorrigibly and, yet always, actively. In the story ‘The Last Time I Tried to Leave Home…’ the protagonist has to catch a flight from Calcutta to Frankfurt, leaving his birthplace ‘to start a new life’ in Europe, and yet as time passes, and it passes inexorably, so noticeably in this story, he (fully aware, one suspects) keeps regressing instead of reaching near the airport. The past – his former home, his former love, his now-almost-former city – keeps breaking in, interrupting his departure. The reader is painfully aware of the passage of time and how out of step with it this strange guy is.
The Indian middle class is a schizophrenic people, always out of step with itself. On the one hand they are feted by (what Tariq Ali calls) India’s ‘airhead’ national media as a miracle, as the vehicle and riders of India’s ‘growth story’ (Barkha Dutt used to say ‘meteoric growth story’), as the class which will push Asia into the 21st century (moving right behind their Chinese brethren) and led by the fantastical apparition of its diasporas in the U.S. and the U.K. (never in the Middle East and Africa). Ahead of the 2013 Union Budget, Pronnoy Roy (Barkha Dutt Sr.) was talking only about this haloed class when he said that ‘2-3 years ago, India was the focus of the world. The world looked at India, those great hopes, great faith. We were growing at 8%… [t]hat gave great hope to everybody… It really looked very bright.’ On the other hand, far from this (spurious) self-confidence, this same middle class is the perpetually wronged party, always anxious and shrill. Despite being what Amartya Sen calls ‘the relatively poor of the rich’ who have hijacked national level welfare debates where it projects itself as the ‘aam-aadmi’ (‘the elite’ never calls itself ‘the elite’), getting its diesel subsidies, negligible import duties on gold and diamonds, State-subsidized higher education, an urban planning push that favours the car-owners and gated housing, its OCI and NRI cards, it yet manages to sell itself as the aggrieved one when any genuine talk of universal food, pension or health cover is breathed, when the actual poor stand to gain. In the age of Dalit assertion, it rues reservations, becoming ‘meritocratic’ when it has to share power. In the age of armed tribal upsurge, it advocates Gandhian non-violence as the only mode of protest. It is self-righteous and anxious, powerful and pitiful at the same time. When you finish reading Chakraborti’s book, you will say the same for his characters.
In the titular story ‘Lost Men’, the protagonist returning to Calcutta from London, grieving his wife’s death, meets his co-passenger Santosh at the Muscat airport who would keep on scratching his balls, and who looked to him like he was from ‘Dhakuria Lane on the bank adjacent to the railway side slums’ in Calcutta, who, as he was not performing the right amount of ‘genteel’ as expected of him, makes the protagonist reflect that ‘perhaps flights were the new buses…this one seemed full of characters you would only ever see on buses before, especially rural ones’. Chakraborti manages to show the smug that rots at the heart of this character inoculated from the rest of his world – grief or no grief – an Indian who is an English professor in Britain, and on whom, only as the story moves, the reality of the other Indian diaspora, the unskilled and the semi-skilled labour in the Gulf, slowly dawns, initiating a crisis of guilt and class-privilege till he forgets it as soon he steps out of the Dum Dum airport. But the thing is this: no forgetting is finally possible in Chakraborti’s stories, all past guilt, privilege and loss comes to bear irrevocably on the present of his actors. In ‘Lost Men’ the protagonist ends up meeting a series of other ‘lost men’ – first Santosh, then a manic American sports-coach who threatens a mass shooting, then a Thai waiter in love with an Italian girl, and finally, the actors Vinod Mehra, Kader Khan and Pran but only as a happy memory (happiness is always a memory in Chakraborti) of a film watched years back with his wife. These episodes are strung together horizontally, there is no developing realization, no epiphany, no so-this-is-what-it-was-all-about. These episodes do not speak to each other. Their connection is absurd, but precisely in its root sense, Latin absurdus, formed from ab and surdus, means deaf, stupid, always out of step. Like the class to which Chakraborti’s characters belong.
I earlier told you the story of the Indian middle-class only to make apparent the historical foundations of the idea of the absurd in literature. The absurd – in which Chakraborti’s pen sometimes dithers, sometimes excels – has never simply been about the characters finding no inherent purpose in life, simply passing from one meaningless action to another, as if operating ahistorically. The absurd character is not outside history, its strangeness, its resistance to meaning, is a commentary on precisely those historical formations whose pulls have become too difficult to bear, whose common sense now only undermines its adherents. The absurd is not the lack of meaning, it is its artificial delimitation. The absurd does not exist in some opposition to history, it is in fact its obverse, its cruel face. For Franz Kafka (who – I pay this compliment with some hesitation – Chakraborti sometimes touches, especially in the long forms) this face was the bureaucratic opaqueness of a tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire, for Eugene Ionesco it was the ascendancy of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania of the 30s, for Samuel Beckett, it was, as his Nobel prize citation said, ‘the destitution of modern man’ but a destitution possible only in the Europe that had seen two savage wars and the many ends of its brutal territorial colonialism.
For Rajorshi Chakraborti, as his characters travel, in his own words, ‘between mystery and mystery’, the face of their absurdity – its shape and its setting – is precisely this post-liberalization moment in the Indian polity where the middle-class actors (resident, diasporic, media res) have to be sufficiently strident, sufficiently forward looking (as Alhuwalia prescribes) and confidently indifferent to any collective politics, aside from an easy cocktail of social conservatism and a blunt romance with GDP ‘growth’. Chakraborti’s characters – in the stories, not the novella – reflect this common-sense in their own absurd glass: the characters are lost, their confidence is laced with anxiety, their energy is always on the edge of paranoia, they act despite themselves, without clarity, always catching up, getting caught in the spirals of events they thought were of their own making, and finally, as to their alleged forward-lookingness, much like the last line of The Great Gatsby, they ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ Just when you imagine that the Indian middle class is in control of its future – economic, affective or social – that its boats are aligned with the current, you read Chakraborti’s book and realize that this figure is inordinately exhausted, that the future it keeps on going on about is only a caustic mirage. This is the political revelation at the heart of the literary style of the absurd. Chakraborti’s Lost Men marks the moment when the Indian middle class, strictly speaking, lost the plot.
Akhil Katyal is a writer based in Delhi where he teaches English literature at Delhi University. His poems and articles have been published in The Houston Literary Review, UCity Review, The Litterateur, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Times of India, Himal Magazine, Open Democracy, Pratilipi, Millennium Post among others. His poetry collection is forthcoming with Westland, Delhi. He can be contacted at email@example.com.