Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review: The Peacock Throne (2007) by Sujit Saraf

Maybe I'm just lucky or perhaps writers from the Indian subcontinent are a cut above everyone else, but every novel I've read from that part of the world seems to be better than the last. The Peacock Throne is the best so far. Although it was only published in 2007 it already seems to have fallen into the category of forgotten gems. I say this because it appears to be out of print, and it has only garnered a measly three reviews on Amazon. Make that four reviews after I post this one.

The first and most obvious point of reference for describing The Peacock Throne is to compare it to a Dickens novel. There's the same multitude of characters, the journalistic attention to detail, and a fascination with the sheer variety of human experience. The central character is Gopal, a lowly tea seller in the sprawling Chandi Chowk market of New Delhi. His life becomes the central point in a carousel of schemes and plots and crimes that, in turn, have their roots in some of the seismic events in the political life of India between the years 1984 and 1998.

Saraf has chosen a very large canvas for his story and he fills every inch of it with incident and detail. What makes this saga different from run-of-the-mill epics is that Saraf is passionate about his characters. Many of the people we meet are venal, shifty or corrupt, but they're brought to life so emphatically, so enthusiastically one ends up with a rooting interest in all but the worst of them. I have only the barest knowledge of recent Indian history, but it's pretty clear that one of Saraf's aims with his novel is to show that the average Indian, as represented by Gopal, is both a victim and a tool of India's political and mercantile elites. Democracy is alive in India, but it's often drunk and disorderly. Speaking of which, don't think that because there's a political angle to this novel it's confusing or tedious. This is a wildly entertaining novel. There's sex, violence, humour and intrigue aplenty: all the ingredients of a best-seller with the added bonus that they've been put together by a superb writer. Now that I think of it, another writer Saraf should be compared to is Balzac. Saraf has the same fondness and gift for describing the Byzantine scheming of the merchant classes as they scramble for wealth and power.

An excellent companion piece to this novel is Serious Men by Manu Joseph. It's central character is also low on the totem pole, but, unlike Gopal, he decides to get a measure of revenge on his superiors. It's interesting that both novels (as far as I can tell by Googling reviews) did not receive a warm reception in India. I think if you're writing any kind of epic novel about a nation you should take that as a compliment.

Related posts:
Book Review: Serious Men by Manu Joseph
Book Review: The Sweet and Simple Kind by Yasmine Gooneratne
Book Review: Partitions by Amit Majmudar

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