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Review of The Minister's Wife by Amaresh Misra, New Delhi: Penguin Books 2002. Rs 250 (Deccan Chronicle, 18 Aug 2002)
After a well-received 'biography' of Lucknow, Amaresh Misra has produced a badly-written potboiler. Ajit Vajpayee, a 'Kanyakubja Brahmin from Allahabad' and a jaded, lapsed Marxist, is drawn into spying on Rukmini Devi, the minister's wife of the title. In Mumbai and Bihar on this unlikely mission, Ajit discovers layer upon layer of deception with the plot careening crazily from sex to violence to sex again. While this almost surreal intrigue of sex, lies, crime and politics has all the ingredients of a political thriller, Misra makes a hash of it by bad dialogue and incongruous episodes. In the middle of a shootout, with bodies piling up all around, Ajit treats his friend to a lecture on moral relativism!
Poor editing compounds the mess: corespondent; faught (twice!); figure instead of finger -- this last in a sex scene. "Were woman really so naively evil?" the editor at Penguin has Ajit ask himself.
And what about the 'erotic' part of this 'erotic thriller' that Penguin says it is? The novel is about sex and profanity, not love -- the occasional Urdu poem only highlights the emotionally bleak lives of the characters. "Men have always used me," Rukmini declares to Ajit. And Ajit, for his part, remains sexually aroused for most of the novel. Early in the novel, otherwise full of heterosexual erections, Ajit has an ambivalent encounter with a pair of eunuchs -- "tough feminine faces, muscular legs, the sounds of abuse and love, the strangely seductive smell of semen and blood". This episode, like the rape and sodomy in the rest of the novel, is completely gratuitous.
Besides, the author's awkwardness with sex scenes borders on the ridiculous. While having sex with Rukmini, we are told, "Her nipples appeared darker still; Ajit tweaked them whenever he got a chance". Most bizarre of all is his even more intimate moment with a Mrs Jha (who is called by that name even during their coupling), when Ajit has "a strange sensation of sitting in some dimly lit restaurant, inhaling the smell of Jumbo prawns."
In a recent interview, Misra says, "I was not interested in writing about India or the spiritual wasteland as most other writers project it to be". However, a wasteland is exactly what he has created in this novel. This is a post-Leftist, post-Mandal, post-Babri, post-Tehelka India that Ajit drifts about in aimlessly. As Rukmini tells him, "There is a world -- the political world -- which appears in the press, and that is what most people know. Then there is a world which operates on the side, a seamier, darker world where big shots do things for trivial reasons, nothing is sacred. Power, money and just about any kind of twisted diversion -- that is all that matters." Misra has wasted a fine opportunity of showing us this world.
In the same interview, Amaresh Misra declares, "I think I have done a good job and am into fiction writing for good." Let us hope that either his craft improves, or better counsel prevails.
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