The novel is a comment on the intolerance in our society – towards religion, people with diverse dietary preferences and others who're not "like us".

The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian Upamanyu Chatterjees novella is apt for our times
Features Book review Wednesday, August 22, 2018 - 14:47
Written by  Sandeep Narayanan

Upamanyu Chatterjee is a criminally underrated author and some of the blame can be attributed to the man himself. He debuted with the brilliant English August which received much critical acclaim. First published in 1988, it was hailed as the Indian Catcher in the Rye. The book was subsequently adapted into a film starring Rahul Bose and directed by Dev Benegal.

However, this phenomenal work was followed by a series of underwhelming books which received a lukewarm response. But, with The Revenge of the Non-Vegetarian, the author seems to be back in top form. The novella tells the story of an entire family which gets murdered in a fire in Batia, in a state called Narmada Pradesh and the consequences that follow.

The story is set in a period between 1949 and 1973. There are three main characters in this book: Madhusudhan Sen, Nadeem Dalvi and Basant Kumar Bal. Madhusudhan Sen is a ICS officer, the Magistrate of Batia, and what one would call a connoisseur of non-vegetarian food and whose typical breakfast in Calcutta consisted of, by his own admission, “eggs and sausages, liver, toast, fruit and tea”. His official residence in Batia, to his misfortune, is situated in an area which is unofficially vegetarian due to its proximity to temple of great significance to the locals.

Nadeem Dalvi, a Muslim, is Sen’s Mamlatdar and also a supplier of non-vegetarian food to Sen. Dalvi and him set up a discreet method to transport food from the latter’s house to Sen’s official bungalow. An unlikely bond forms between these two because of food. Dalvi lives with his family and a dog in a huge house. Basant Kumar Bal is Dalvi’s servant who lives in the outhouse and does all the household chores like “ferrying in water and coal, washing up, rushing to the bazaar to buy sugar and eggs, tending to the cows, clearing the clothesline”. Things take an unexpected turn when Dalvi’s entire family gets killed in a fire. A shocked Sen decides to investigate the death of his “principal protein and cholesterol supplier” and vows to turn vegetarian till justice has been done.

What starts out as an murder investigation into the deaths of the Dalvi family becomes a intricate web of class divides and morality. Chatterjee, with his restrained writing and sparse prose, forces the readers to introspect and understand their own prejudices and failings. Themes of beef politics and cow vigilantism are explored without passing judgment and being preachy. The novel is a comment on the intolerance in our society – towards religion, towards people with diverse dietary preferences (beef in this case) and people who belong to a different social and economical strata than ours.

The book is wickedly humorous even in the face of the death and sadness. The world that Chatterjee paints is a complicated one, there are no easy answers. Chaterjee’s book is a quick read at a measly 127 pages with a pretty straightforward premise. But once you scratch the surface, it is a very layered and nuanced look into themes which are pertinent to the times we live in. A hugely satisfying read, this book will keep you hooked till its shocking end and leave you with a lot of uncomfortable questions and a dreary feeling.

Published by Speaking Tiger Publishing in 2018, you can buy the book here.

P.S : For the fans of the English August, the protagonist of this novella, Madhusdhan Sen is Agastya’s (the protagonist of English August) father.