In this rivetting novel Kali’s Daughter, Raghav Chandra gives an insight into the life of a civil servant in the background of caste equations. A review by Santosh Bakaya.
Author: Raghav Chandra
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Available on: Amazon
The Economist had mentioned Kali’s Daughter as one of the books that needed to be read, and indeed it is a book, not to be read just once, but many times.
The moment one starts reading it, one realises that the author, Raghav Chandra is obviously in love with words.
His similes leave one with lingering smiles, the descriptions are highly evocative and character sketches very well delineated.
There is a Dalit family, from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, originally saddled with an unsavoury surname, later changed to Thakur, under the advice of a senior. They have been at the receiving end of many atrocities and societal prejudices and when Deepika, their bright daughter, gets a high position in the Civil Services, most of the high-brow, high- caste neighbours crinkle their high-caste noses, and contemptuously pour venom at the reserved quotas. The parents are very happy that she has got into the IAS, but devastated that her name figures very high and that she has also opted for the IFS (a heart-wrenching irony!). This idea does not appeal to them at all, as this would mean no official car, with the beacon light flashing, no loud siren for the locals to see and hear, and turn green with envy.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is another family – an elitist, high class Brahmin family, the Acharyas, who are hoping that their son figures high in the successful candidates of the civil Services so that he can join the IFS. His mother, who, with her impassioned flourishes and ‘richly painted lips on a pearl white skin’ looks ‘quite wicked – in a burlesque way’, hopes that he will one day head the United Nations and also get a fair-skinned girl as wife.
‘Just get in, just get in,’ she said, rolling her bulbous eyes. She cleared her throat and then pimped conspiratorially in an enticing, velvety drawl, ‘I promise you the best girls in the world.’
And when this mother, who prides herself on her suave and sophisticated looks comes to know of her son’s leanings towards Deepika, who not only hails from the lower caste, but is also dark-complexioned, all hell breaks loose.
“Why can’t you appreciate my respect for the vulnerable?” asks Aman, the son.
What follows is a contemptuous sneer from the stiff-upper-lipped mother.
“They’re crude, clumsy and careless in that order. I can’t have her in my house.”
With one stroke of such callous and ingrained prejudice, the mother makes mincemeat of the love-talk of her son and his girlfriend. Alas!
“But your heart is luminous, like moonlight.”
“My language is weak.”
“But your thoughts are compelling.”
“I’m of a different background.”
“But our vision is the same.”
“I’m an untouchable,” she said softly biting her lips, looking down at her feet.
“I feel you are delightfully huggable, loveable.”
Two families. Two perspectives. Two differing worldviews. Two different castes. And two batchmates in love.
Cut to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.
Ganga block was under siege. A cacophony of alarms went off like war sirens, followed by Arundhati’s own mobile. The shrill medley of sounds continued for the next fifteen minutes compounded with the loud shouts of ‘Chai Sir, chai Ma’am.’ Doors were banged on and flung open. People raced and raved.
This is the early morning scene at the Academy and the writer, with his eye for detail, immediately succeeds in making one a part of this cacophony, till the readers’ ears start ringing with loud shouts of chai chai. This is the power of the writer’s versatile quill!
With a tongue-in-cheek wit, he sketches the main characters in such a way that we come face to face with irrepressible and wily foxes, primitive and bumbling gorillas, selectively aggressive bears, vain roosters and boxers, all masquerading as Officer Trainees in the Academy.
Then dawns a chilly day in Geneva, where Kali’s daughter, aka Deepika, Deepu, D, finds herself perched precariously on the horns of a Hamletian dilemma. She is poised to address the United Nations Human Rights Council and tell the world that the Indian government is going all out to eradicate caste discrimination in India, whereas as a Dalit woman, she has, behind her a long history of caste atrocities. Her head reels as past incidents of humiliation flash before her eyes.
Will she, won’t she? Will she follow her heart or her head? With deft strokes of his pen, the author builds the suspense, making the reader sit on the edge of the chair.
The novel touches upon many societal issues, but the caste issue is its main focus. Replete with many incidents reminiscent of certain thorny news items, it does not lag or drag even for a moment. On the contrary, it moves forward at the pace of a very riveting thriller, with an edge-of-the-seat suspense, sprinkled with many humorous anecdotes, red herrings and twists in the tale of a very intriguing story.
At the Academy, Deepika is caught between the affections of Vijay, a fellow Dalit and Aman, a high caste Brahmin. Whose affections will prevail finally? The reader wonders.
The theme of the book provides enough scope for pontification and sermonizing, yet, the author is not at all judgemental, but enchants the reader with a heart-warming candour and a highly appealing language.
In one chapter, the Officer Trainees are listening to the key speaker in the Academy Literaure Festival, Mr. Baman Jatav, a former Indian Information Service Officer-turned theatrist who has dwelt at length on the slurs and prejudices he has suffered, and things get embarrassing during the interactive session.
Deepika bristled when she heard Arundhati ask, “But must you flaunt your identity? Just because it sounds avante-garde and makes you feel macho in an under-doggish way? Somebody might argue that’s crass opportunism.”
This author can be sharply incisive and he not only singes the reader viscerally, but also makes the reader burst out laughing. The reference to an ICS officer who had a penchant for writing quirky ACRs, describing one of his subordinates, ‘at his very best, this officer is mediocre. But seldom is he at his best.’ made me chuckle, so did many other snippets, turns of phrases, puns and interesting nuggets and witticisms. I read on and on with an unflagging interest late into the night, finishing the novel in two days. This is definitely a book which will cater to every bibliophile’s sensibilities.
I am now looking forward to reading the author’s first novel, Scent of a Game .
About Raghav Chandra
Raghav Chandra an officer of the Indian Administrative Service, was Secretary to the Government of India. A keen golfer, this widely published writer is the Director of the Bhopal Literature and Art Festival and writes and lectures about inclusive growth, management and sustainability. His earlier novel, Scent of a Game, was a novel about wildlife hunting and conservation.
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