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Depressing and Harrowing
Review of An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma. Viking, Penguin India 2000. Rs 395.
When the novel opens, we see Ram Karan musing: "I needed to force money from Father Joseph and it made me nervous". I mistakenly thought that the 'father' of the title is a Father of the Church! However, the obedient father is indeed the 57-year-old widower, Ram Karan, who is an Inspector for the Physical Education department in the Delhi school system, and supports his recently-widowed daughter Anita, and her 8-year-old daughter Asha by collecting bribes for a small-time Congress Party boss, Mr Gupta.
Ram Karan manages to get forty thousand rupees from Father Joseph, but not before we get the picture of a man consumed by self-loathing. He speaks of his "general incompetence and laziness". "I am the type of person who does not make sure that a file includes all the pages it must have.... I refuse to accept even properly placed blame, lying outright that somebody else had misplaced the completed forms or spilled tea on them...." He tells us that "my panic in negotiations was so apparent that even people who were eager to bribe me became resentful".
That evening he goes with his granddaughter Asha to the boss Mr Gupta's house for a party. Returning thoroughly drunk, this unlovely man proceeds to fondle Asha: "nervousness and excitement rubbed with each other". Suddenly Anita appears in the doorway. "For a second I panicked. I felt as if I had been kicked in the chest, and there was a rushing in my ears.... There was no emotion on Anita's face as she stared at me.... I wondered whether she remembered. How could she remember after decades of silence?"
And thus at the end of the first chapter, we get an inkling of why the jacket of the novel shows a half-portrait in black-and-white of a girl of about 8 or 10, dishevelled, half-clothed, and staring in sullen silence at the lens. In the second chapter, narrated by Anita, and the third, in which Ram Karan relives the past on a bus journey to his village, we discover that two decades ago, when Anita was 12, her father raped her repeatedly: the silence of the girl on the cover is not sullen; it is a traumatised silence.
The rape and the silence surrounding it are only two of the many kinds of public and private violence in the novel. "Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death," he remembers of his village. With the country's Independence -- and Partition -- round the corner, "Muslim corpses began appearing everywhere. At the edge of the town, I found a young woman and a boy of about eight lying a few feet apart next to a thorn fence. Both were naked and slashed all over." Later, a BJP-man tells Ram Karan of the "train to Pakistan" that they were told to send: "We put two thousand bodies in one train. I had to go back to the office to get more bullets." And decades later, after Indira Gandhi's assassination, came the "government-supported massacres of Sikhs. Buses were stopped during bright day with the military a hundred metres away and Sikh passengers dragged out and murdered."
"All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people," he concludes. But this knowledge is cold comfort, for when Anita does discover Ram Karan with Asha, she declares war. She extracts revenge by first making him confess and say explicitly that he raped her two decades ago. Then she demands money; "and I want the flat when you die" -- "the obedient father" agrees to all these demands of course. And more: "Each night I confessed my political sins.... [I] told her what crimes I had committed that day on Mr Gupta's behalf. I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her."
Meanwhile other public events weave into Ram Karan's personal hell. Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated, Mr Gupta is wooed by the BJP, and a deadly game of corruption, changing loyalties, and betrayal begins. Lakhs are exchanged and witheld; people disappear and turn up with their throats cut. Ram Karan survives the Income Tax raids, but only just. But in his dingy, Old Delhi flat, relationships worsen: suddenly, Anita declares, "I am going to tell everyone. I want everyone to watch you." She not only visits relatives and friends and relives her trauma with them, she works out her revenge in other ways too: "I start cooking six rotis for Pitaji instead of four and pouring a spoon of butter on each. I am not responsible for his appetites." And the last act of this sordid drama begins.
In this debut novel, Akhil Sharma tells a story that is by turns merely depressing and truly harrowing.