The Rat Eater is an atmospheric murder mystery with an existentialist undercurrent; the story of a boy who grew up to be a man in a country where it is hard to separate the real from the imagined.

I was born on a bloody road The blood was my mothers Excerpts from The Rat Eater
Features Book Excerpt Tuesday, July 11, 2017 - 17:16

When a local Mumbai politician is found wrapped in a plastic bag behind a park bench, the dashing and capable Ajay Biswas, DIG, is asked to take over the case. Ajay arrives in Mumbai along with his wife Aparajita, and very soon discovers he is being misled by his Mumbai compatriots hell-bent on saving their own skin. Someone is deliberately providing false leads; his presence is not wanted.

While in Mumbai, Ajay and Aparajita meet up with their old college friend Akhil Sukumar. Akhil and Aparajita have had a tortuous history, and it appears that now, on the surface at least, the one-time lovers want nothing more than to let bygones be bygones. Easier said.

From the infertile lands of rural India to the immaculate lawns of Cambridge, The Rat Eater is an atmospheric murder mystery (fiction) with an existentialist undercurrent; the story of a boy who grew up to be a man in a country where it is hard to separate the real from the imagined. Following are excerpts from the book. 

 

A House for Mr Biswas

What should be the suburb is really the heart of the city.

Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone: an area of a few square miles, inaccessible to the native as recently as sixty years ago, is, now, the most sought after property in the country. Bribes are paid, transfers are made, friends are stabbed, enemies are pampered, seats are bartered, ministries are swapped, and at the end of it all, the victorious can move into a ninety-year-old bungalow with a twenty-four-hour power and water supply, with twenty-feet-high ceilings, with a gravel path approach, with a lawn to die for.

Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Delhi, dwell fourteen million humans of the same colour and features. They work hard, they sleep less, they travel on buses, they disappear down manholes, they die in road accidents, they pay bribes to the power and the water people, they wake up every morning with a tin bucket in hand and rush to the only tap in their crumbling tenements, they survive another day, another week, another month. Then, exhausted, they come on the weekends to the heart of the city with their children and their parents and lie on the cool green grass by India Gate. They remove their socks and dip their two feet in the boat club pool and wiggle their toes. They look around and see roads that are protected from the sun’s fury by hundred-year -old jamun tress, neem trees, imli trees. They see the roads merging at roundabouts as big as the parks where they live. They see in those roundabouts the seasonal flowers in full bloom, the art deco fountains bursting with energy, they see that no one can enter the roundabout gardens as they are cordoned with spiked chains and iron railings. Then they get a little adventurous and start to stroll about one of the tree-lined avenues. ‘Look, that must be the home minister’s house’, they point to their kids. ‘And look there. That is 7 Race Course Road, the prime minister’s residence.’ But their sightseeing is interrupted rudely by a lathi-wielding constable who looks up and down them and asks them to get lost.

The heart is still inaccessible to the native, and a thousand years from now, when archaeologists stumble upon the mythical city of Delhi, the most well-preserved ruins they shall find would be of Lutyens’ Pompeii. The tumblers and the vases of great sultanates and dynasties will once again be on show.

The departing British handed over to the native something magical – his own land. The native received that land with watery eyes and a lump in his throat, and now that he had the government sanction and the constitutional right to walk on the soft lawns, smell the flowers, collect the jamuns, drive on the boulevards – now that he was free, he quickly made it his and only his. And over the years, many of the Lutyens’ bungalows have become imposing shrines of refuge, away from the heat and the dust of matrubhoomi, with the accompanying green acreage giving way to swimming pools paved with Italian marble. And those obtrusive colonnaded porticos, a reminder of the whimsical draughtsmanship of a scornful white man, have been torn down and replaced with mock Mughal-Greek-Tudor architecture, all to the delight and satisfaction of the victorious.

There they sit – you cannot see them but – fenced away as they are by stitched-up cane – but there they are, perched on rattan in their manicured lawns, with their sprinklers whirring gloriously, providing a welcoming mist to their golden mornings, with their dogs already up and running, retrieving Frisbees and Indian Expresses and Jansattas and – oh, look: There he comes, the cummerbund-ed servant with the frilly turban, and he brings the first flush on a silver tray, and the silver teapot is teacosied in a velvet wrap, and the wrap is embroidered with silver zari, and the perfectly shaped sugar cubes are arranged in a silver bowl, and at hand is a pair of silver tongs to pick up the cubes, and rich, frothy milk sloshes gently in a silver beaker, and to absorb the ugly cup rings, between the silver cup and the silver saucer, is wedged a ruffled blotting paper, and the silver spoons are in abundance.

And the lord? He jolts the newspaper rigid and doesn’t even bother to look up and acknowledge all that silver.

There they sit and from there they rule. And when they die, their next of kin miraculously get the same bungalow to live in for the next fifty years.

And it was in such a bungalow, over such a lawn, amidst such flowers, under such trees, surrounded by such servants, that the recently appointed Police Commissioner of Delhi, Ajay Biswas IPS, was pacing up and down, shouting, ‘Arey Gokul, oye Ramkhilawan. Where the hell are you buggers, dammit?’

 

Excerpt 2

How adi is vasi? Do naphthalene balls tell stories? Does paper have odour? Do trees have eyes? What do they see and whom do they tell? Trees will live longer than you. So will the paper you stored, the letters you saved, the photographs you have hung on the walls of your mind. The stories you never heard, couldn’t tell, didn’t know, collectively forgave, independently cursed, long as life, short as destiny. You will live beyond you if you don’t know who you are.

Invisible laughter, visible grief. Or the other way round – everyone knows so no one does?

And then there were none.

Can’t leave the house. So much responsibility, so many things. Things. Locks and keys of empty souls, almirahs full of valuables brimming in grief. Family papers, court cases, property fights, venom and hate, greed and arrangements. Blocks that don’t fit into a circle, like a chair with three legs or none. Can’t leave the house or the house doesn’t leave you? When do you leave your body – any ideas? Before you are dead, during or after? When do you kill others so you can pack your suitcases?

And then there were none.

Storage space is never sufficient. Clutter gives confidence, empty spaces question. Fill, fill, land fill. What is more unsettling – the end of a sentence or the beginning of one, and what if both didn’t exist or one couldn’t without the other? Innards hanging out.

Empty spaces question. Empty spaces between things that is, more important than the ones between us. Between you and me, between me and myself, between us and our loved ones. Remembered by what you inherit, not what you make of yourself. Complicated, dissected, distributed and agreed. What matters is the arrangement. And in a certain order known to man but unknown to the universe.

And then there were none.

So who begins the story? Your story, my story, our story, their story. The winners or the losers? Who records history – family history, country’s history? History. How long is respectable, how short is the bastard? How real is the arrangement, how false is the deviation? Where is the limit? Is that a cliff or a trough, a road or a destiny?

Who knows. Who doesn’t.

Who knows! Who doesn’t!

Who knows? Who doesn’t?

Is the knower also the seeker or is the seeker and the sought the same? The search is ceaseless. Waves and wounds, waves and wounds, but why is the ocean calm? Kshirasagara is still. This is frustrating. Where is the shipwreck of my soul?

And then there were none.

Who am I? What I am I? I am blind and I can see that I am blind. A blindness so bright it blinds. Behind our eyes we bear a loneliness that is our own. We move indifferent and apart, even from the sadness in our hearts. Refuge, subterfuge.

Subterfugees. Living in a subterfugee camp.

The minute we are born we are in a queue, a number. Take a ticket and stand in line. How long my time is, no one knows. So I require, I acquire, I desire. In preparation and desperation for a liberation I neither understand nor know. Or want. Wantless line, wicked destiny.

And then there were none.

How far back is reasonable memory? How far back do you go? What is the point? Of course, there is. History is important. The history of the important. The history of important things, the history of dates, the dates of important acquisitions, captured for the important, by the important. That’s what matters. Keep what is important and destroy the rest.

And then there were none.

How many times have you walked into a house, your house, wondering what is precious and what is not? That chair, those pictures and those hundreds of letters, one from every city in the world. Of people long dead, of relationships long over – of nothingness that fills our minds and hearts. There is a name for it, as there is one for everything that cannot be quantified. Sixteen kilos of kindness and seven of hate, 8000 photographs of arrivals and departures in airports and cradles, graveyards and stations. Life looking for a place, steels trunks staring at you, steel almirahs laughing at you. They know your secrets, the ones you keep locked in the inner compartments. Is it a kutti godrej or a jabba godrej? The turning of the lock brings memories, good and bad, of smells of distance. What is the distance smell can measure and retain? Marathon or steeplechase?

For how long does a severed head retain the last image of a fast approaching guillotine?

2007 was a good year – the rains were good, the grapes were not sour, the bottles had special labels. Random is a number.

And then there were none.

Walk into your house and collect everything, the physical possessions and the mental. Collect them and stuff them in a house-sized cardboard box. Clasp its flap and drag your memories down the steps – thud, thud, thud, thud – drag them to the lawn at the back of the house where the sun is shining and the cat snoozes under a parasol. Make a fire to stuff the ashes down your throat. Swallow the poison. It is yours. Bonfire, bon appétit. Burn everything, the papers, the letters, the diaries, the photographs. This fire has no smoke, but this room has a view for those who dare to see that what burns in your heart doesn’t have to burn you. Punctuations never end life, only sentences. The souls don’t turn to ash.

Walk or else there will be none.

There will never be a record of the adi for a vasi because there were none. The recorder of time and turner of destinies does not own a watch. He too is naked. Or is it a she?

Walk away. Now and Naked.

Excerpted from The Rat Eater by Anand Ranganathan and Chitra Subramaniam, exclusively available on Juggernaut.

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