Book Review: The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor

A chance reference on an internet conversation to this book set me on the path of writing this review. I had not intended to pen a review on this book, as it is a few years old, but when an acquaintance referred to this as a work of fiction, I was genuinely surprised. That is when I thought to do my bit for the book, and try and pen a comprehensive review on this superlative look at Indian History. For that is what it is: a book on history, laced with an even dose of current affairs. 

The Great Indian Novel is a one-of-a-kind effort; a book that defies classification. It has been written as a novel, as a work of fiction. But the real topic has  been so thinly disguised - quite deliberately - that it comes across as a work of satire, humour and history. With a little bit of current affairs thrown in. A page turner from the first page to the last, it will have you rolling on the floor in laughter, clutching your sides with its unsurpassed humour. Note - I do not mean satire; I mean humour. And when this humour comes combined with satire - a brutally blunt, straightforward satirical approach, it elevates the book into a work of art; a best-in-class item; a top-notch book  worth a read by every Indian.

The story is the story of Mother India from around 1900 AD till around 1980, from the struggle for India's Independence, going on to the early years of self-rule, the disillusionment with Nehruvianism, the response of various characters, the wars, the Indira Gandhi Years etc. All this is told indirectly, through the Mahabharat Characters who are loosely based on real characters. But the beauty is that you immediately realise who is meant to represent who. Once you identify who is supposed to represent who, it becomes very easy,  and fun. This is one book that is meant only for Indians: non-Indians would very likely not be able to make much sense out of it!

Bhishma Pitamah has been represented Gandhiji, referred to in the book as Gangaji. Dhritarashtra is based on Jawaharlal Nehru, Duryodhan - Priya Duryodhani - guess who? Obvious, isnt it? Jinnah is represented loosely by Karna; You can identify most characters pretty easily this way, accept the main 5 pandav brothers. That is the key to understanding the second half of the book. Judging from some reviews I have read, a few people have not been able to fathom it, so let me spell it out for you, or give you a hint. The 5 Pandav Brothers represent the pillars of the democracy, The Army, Media etc. 

The book is a brutal blunt and straightforward look at Indian History, and is ruthless in its criticism of British Rule and the western approach towards India, in typical Tharoor style. Sample this: Born 30th November 1874, Home Secretary at Thirty Six, First Lord of the Admiralty, An overweight, overrated, politician, A representative of the worst of British Colonialism". Winston Churchill was born on 30/11/1874! "Viscount Drewpad was the right man to give away a kingdom- tall elegantly dressed, he wore his lack of learning lightly, cultivating a casual patter that impressed anyone he spent less than five minutes with. It helped of course, that in their ruling classes the British valued height more than depth" The last viceroy was Mr Louie Mountbatten! The book is chock full of such entertaining sentences that allude to real characters - both Indian as well as British.

The second half of the book narrates the tale of the pandav brothers and their wife- Draupadi Mokrasi (read as DMokrasi - get it? ) to stand on their own 2 feet. Read carefully - you will find enough hints to figure out who is what, Not who, but what. Draupadi has been mentioned in one place as D. Mokrasi.... which is a subtle hint. The Pandavas have been clearly placed as who represents what, stay with the narrative - which builds your suspense until the author reveals who is  what. And please remember (with regard to Draupadi) that India is a Democracy.... that should be enough hints. That along with the hint that the pandavs are not persons but "whats" or institutions, and most of you will enjoy the subtle second half as well!

Mr Tharoor has been straightforward, blunt and honest in putting his views across on most issues through this book - without regard for nationality or personage, as can be seen in the examples above. While going about this task, he has managed to embed these views in a fast-paced and interesting story based on our History. The book is a page turner, alternating laughter and smiles with passages that bring a tear to your eyes and a stillness in your heart; or a wonder as to how stupid could we have been. At no point in the book are you left wondering as to what is going on. 

The flow is smooth and effortless, touching major points of our history - Jalianwala Bagh, Salt March, Subhash Chandra Bose, Riots, Independence, Kashmir, Early development years, Building the nation, India - China, The wars, The onset of Priya Duryodhani and her trysts and battles with the 5 pandavas, The emergency years and the Janta rule. No one has been spared, indictments of all involved are brutal and are bound to hurt some people - especially any Britishers who happen to read this. "The British were the only people crass enough in History to make enemies out of the Americans; that took stupidity on quite a stupendous scale"; having said that, Indians have not been spared either. "They made a strange pair, the blond patrician and the blind politician" etc. This is in classic Tharoor style, as is evident in his latest book Pax Indica, which I shall review a bit later. But coming back to this book, it takes you from the early years of the struggle onto around 1980, leaving you with a simle on your face, and just a tinge of sadness in your heart at what could have been. If you  are not aware of the precise events full details, it will add to your understanding of the past century. All in all, a must read for all Indians. 

I dont usually rate books, but this one rates 6 stars out of 5!


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