After Messiah By Aakar Patel. (Image: DC)
While inaugurating yet another hospital in his 24x7 photo op drive, the Prime Minister aka the Big Man collapses. As expected under his inspiring leadership, the hospital is nowhere close to ready, so the Big Man has to be airlifted to a functioning hospital for treatment where he is pronounced dead. This is, perhaps, one of the funniest death scenes you will ever read. For this Aakar Patel’s first attempt at fiction, After Messiah, gets a solid eight on ten.
Patel then attempts to visualise how things may play out in the event of the Big Man’s absence — and it’s a rather jolly attempt — well, in the beginning at least. The battle for succession overshadows the Big Man’s funeral, and the two lead contenders play Tom and Jerry games with each other to win the throne. One is Jayeshbhai, the minister in charge of internal security, and the other is Swamiji, the saffron-robed chief minister of a state. While Jayeshbhai has a vast number of dirty tricks up his sleeve (like illegally digging up filth on anyone he chooses to), he’s rude, uncouth, and not very popular — the only person he loves is his son who accompanies him practically everywhere. Materialistic godman Swamiji on the other hand, has a band of devotees that include party members, the public, and even (gasp) judges. Both gather their allies around them to battle it out (by the way, if these two characters sound familiar, it’s because they are).
The head of state demands that an interim Prime Minister be appointed and bureaucrats at the PMO draw up a list of three unassuming candidates whom neither Jayeshbhai or Swamiji can object to.
Of the three, Mira seems the least likely. Made an MP by the Big Man when her father, a long serving party member, dies, she’s not been very active in Parliament. Also, she’s an unknown quantity and doesn’t appear to have much in common with the party — she’s a lawyer who protects tribals from land grabs by the government and its corporate buddies.
When Ayesha, the new principal secretary at the PMO, visits Mira to try to persuade her, the answer is "No" (bold, all caps, followed by several shrieking exclamation marks). Ayesha is disappointed because she rather likes Mira. Something makes Mira change her mind though, and she becomes the interim PM. She’s charming, at first, giggly and pleasant. All is well while the slugfest between Jayeshbhai and Swamiji continues.
When Mira starts listening to the views of disgruntled party elders who had been sidelined during the Big Man’s regime and starts doing her own thing, Jayeshbhai smells trouble for himself and does what he does best: Finds out Mira’s deep dark secrets including her connections to a "foreign hand", and orders the media to tarnish Mira’s reputation.
Who then will win this battle? Will it be Mira who stops taking advice from bureaucrats and behaves more and more like the Big Leader? Or will Jayeshbhai prevail? And what of Swamiji?
While you can’t stop turning the pages in your eagerness to find out how this ends, there are a few disappointments along the way. Starting with Mira, who is not properly fleshed out. Giggles and ideals apart, she’s far too passive.
In the second half, fiction frequently slips into passages and passages and passages of non-fiction, mainly on how governments sneakily or brazenly encroach on your rights — important facts, no doubt, but the momentum is lost. The frothy, foamy, promising soda you began with turns flat. Nevertheless, this book is a must read — there are laugh-out-loud bits and caricatures of certain politicians that it would be a crying shame to miss. Rest assured, you get more than 399 worth of entertainment.
By Aakar Patel
Published by Penguin India
pp. 208; 399