Fans of political skulduggery will appreciate this satirical tale of double-dealing, media manipulation and murder among the ruling classes of West Bengal.
The action begins in Kolkata where billionaire businessman Sachin Lohia is facing a public relations crisis. His brand new (private) hospital has inexplicably burned down with serious loss of life. Worse, the chief minister of West Bengal, Paramita Guha Roy, or “Devi” as she is popularly known, has hijacked the event to turn opinion against the local business community and cement her own position.
While Sachin spends time in jail pending a criminal investigation for negligence, it’s left to his wily adviser, Anil Thakur, to sort out the mess. But Anil has other fish to fry, namely digging a coal mine in the rural town of Balachuria. It’s a big project which will see him blackmailing journalists and bribing the ministry of the environment. The final hurdle is even harder: persuading the local people to accept the relocation of their homes and living with the pollution which the mine would cause.
The situation becomes more complicated when it transpires that Dr Anima Acharya, a brain surgeon to whom Anil has offered a top job at the rebuilt hospital in Kolkata, is one of the largest landowners in Balachuria. As rumors of backhanders circulate, Devi herself steps up to rally public opposition to the mine. As the vested interests battle, the casualties pile up.
The novel’s characters are closely observed, as are the devious strategies they employ. The description of how Anil and his PR agent, the beautiful Lalima, build a media campaign is so detailed (down to the pictures in the brochure) that the reader almost feels complicit in the spin-doctoring process. At times, the satire ceases to be funny as it is so painfully credible. The portrayal of Devi in particular reinforces the feeling that author Tina Biswas is cutting close to the bone. The fictional Devi’s background and career path mirror that of the current real-life chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, although clearly she finds ways to relax other than Devi’s favourite pursuit of pulling the heads off Barbie dolls.
The advisers surrounding Devi are similarly lacerated. For the most part they are revealed as self-serving, corrupt or just plain incompetent, while Devi’s master of public relations, the nervous, antacid-swilling Nigel, is at one stage hilariously reduced to batting off an opponent with Devi’s handbag.
While Devi and the members of her Truth Party are pilloried, they do have some redeeming features. Devi at least sticks, sometimes misguidedly, to her “power for the people” principles and, in one scene, cycles Nigel to hospital herself in in the back of a rickshaw. The industrialists, as represented by Anil, are treated more harshly. Anil finally realises his lack of moral compass is unjustifiable but by then it is too late. Biswas writes that Anil
had always prided himself on the fact that his pragmatism, his do-whatever-needs-to-be-done attitude, had been anchored by a deep and immoveable sense of the greater good. Murky little wrongs could actually lead to a higher, brighter right. But now it had been revealed to him that he could be held hostage by self-interest, like everyone else.
Sadly there is no redemption for Anil, or in fact for most of the other characters. There are no winners. The issue of the mine is unresolved while the entrance of Sachin into the political arena suggests that the situation will continue: leaders pointlessly vie for supremacy and nothing actually happens to benefit those at ground level. This is a tragic ending which is as true in Europe and the US at the moment as it is in fictional Balachuria.