The Peacock Throne
The Peacock Throne
by Sujit Saraf
Sujit Saraf has his head in the clouds. During the day he works on satellite missions, at night he writes fiction. The Peacock Throne, his sprawling fourth novel, opens in Delhi on a November day in 1984 when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated and riots break out. Gopal Pandey, a poor chai-wallah, is caught up in the ensuing violence and finds himself with an unexpected stash of cash. During the next decade and a half Pandey's life takes an incredible rags-to-renown course as the writer deftly laces real events with fiction.
The story is set in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, once the seat of the Mughal empire. Formerly a tree-lined street that led to the Emperor's Red Fort with a canal flowing along its middle, today Chandni Chowk is a bustling place of commerce, the canal paved over. Trade is dominated by Hindus amid the congested alleys and fading Mughal monuments, stores spilling onto the footpaths and hawkers yelling. Muslims decry the loss of Mughal splendour, Hindus are proud of covering the blemish with the plaster of commerce.
Into this setting is cast Suleiman Bhai, a Bangladeshi refugee masquerading as a descendant of Mughals, his eye on a Parliament seat via the votes of Bangla migrants in a slum colony in the area. Sohan Lal, a prosperous Hindu trader and a member of the fundamentalist Hindu party IPP is also angling for election. Pandey, the hapless tea seller, sits in a flimsy structure atop a drain opposite Sohan Lal's shop and serves his customers.
When protests against caste-based quotas break out, the IPP decides to seize the initiative by staging a self-immolation. Pandey's errant son, under the influence of opium, takes centre stage in a rally setting himself alight. As he flails, awaiting the promised blanket to be thrown over him, his dazed father shouts in favour of the quotas. Meanwhile, the God-fearing Sohan Lal has cleansed himself of guilt, having told Gopal rallies were no good for boys.
In the cartoon strips of R.K. Laxman, the character of the 'common man', a bemused expression on his face, observes the shenanigans of Indian society from the sidelines. Saraf's Gopal Pandey is the common man brought to life. The simpleton is tossed as a pawn between the rival Hindu and Muslim factions of Chandni Chowk as each claws its way to the prestige, power and patronage of office. In a wonderfully farcical tale of democratic politics, Pandey is catapulted to within inches of power.
Each faction is supported by a coterie of memorable characters: yellow-toothed spin-meister Ibrahim, one-armed Gauhar, the leader of a gang of thieving street urchins, spare and slick Ramvilas Babu, who courts prostitutes and IPP politicians with equal elan, sari-clad Gita Didi, a prostitute who casts herself as a social worker and a quartet of doddering Hindu traders, each waiting for the other to die and vacate his municipal seat.
Saraf conjures a relentless portrayal of the corruption of modern India, with characters divided by religion, caste, class and gender yet united by self-aggrandisement. The tale would have been bleak but for its rollicking irony and laugh-out-loud humour. The narrative suffers from some repetition, but Saraf's tingling concoction will sober reporters who gush over the emerging economic power of India.