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Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hungry Edge - Ashoak Upadhyay

“What would you do if you have to take sides, apportion blame? You want to cry for the innocent but you do not know who is guilty.”

Thus Mahesh begins to recount to three strangers he meets, his obsession with an ill-fated couple. Skeptical, then intrigued, Arvind – bookseller, recently married, stifled by yet comfortable in a joint family; Ranjan – surface polish, seething passions, a banker with an eye on the main chance; and Dev Reddy – disenchanted left wing editor desperate for a stab at immortality will interpret Mahesh’s ‘confessions’ in the light of their insecurities and fantasies.

Slowly but inexorably each will be driven to actions that will alter their lives and their dear ones irrevocably. By the end of his story, Mahesh too will not be the same again.

This layered tale consisting of stories within stories is a commentary on urban Indians coping with the changes that globalisation is bringing into their social and moral lives. But it is also about memory and time and their role in shaping our passions and our self-perceptions.

The Hungry Edge is set in present day Mumbai and the connecting narrative of the ‘confession’ is set in what used to be The Wayside Inn, where Mahesh a recluse with a “story in his heart” joins quite by chance three diners, the self-styled Gang of Three one Saturday afternoon. He returns every Saturday for his cathartic journey into the past.

The Hungry Edge is veteran journalist and economist Ashoak Upadhyay's first novel. It uses the “adda”, the Indian style salon to bring the main protagonists together. Every Saturday after long conversations, they return to their respective lives with their attitudes to love, sex, money, each other and their sense of self-worth subtly altered. These attitudes are remembered, recalled, reflected upon throughout according to their ‘readings’ of Mahesh’s failed and eventually futile passions as they unfold
Ashoak Upadhyay

The novel is also a tribute to The Wayside Inn, a great haunt, adda actually, for poets, writers and shoppers. Its lazily whirring ceiling fans, red and white checked cloth over wooden tables, beer and indifferent continental fare added to an ambience for conversations that could stretch into the early dusk when the lights would be switched off and the Inn would fold up for the night.

The novel draws upon the author's knowledge of Mumbai’s social and moral ‘history’ and business practices acquired in the course of his professional career. Journalism’s inherent limitations made him turn to fiction to explore the shifting currents of life in the city, their effects on self-worth more vividly and poignantly perhaps more ‘truthfully’. Its anecdotal history added to its charm in a city about to vanish into the age of mobiles and fast food and faster talk.

On one of the tables a lawyer with cruel memories and burning ambition took the first step towards his own immortality by penning the first draft of the Indian Constitution. At later times but no less slow, artists and poets defined and refined the city’s cosmopolitan sensibility.

It was into this Wayside that Mahesh walked in and changed destinies.

Quotes from book

“‘Self-discovery has a fool for a teacher, darling. For instance, some kids think they have the talent for sculpture or poetry but they’re good at mending things, like computer chaps or politicians, you know?’“ Gauri Aunty to a very confused Deepika

‘She has this quality, you know, an epiphany, Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, the face of love, a beauty shot in soft focus. I wanted to sweep her away, no, no, the fucking moron with her would have smashed me to bits.’ Sripad to his friend Vispy on his new-found love

“‘I was not always like this. But you know, your husband does not stroke you and the flower withers. Wells run dry…I have also searched, my dear...for the attention, the affection of my man, then strangers, not that there were many in my life, just uncles, old relatives, friends of this large business family who paw you at weddings.” Parvati looking for more than sympathy from her youngest sister-in-law

“In Ranjan he found a bridge to life as he had not lived it, a dangerous balancing act that excited his frayed imagination” Reddy the socialist is charmed by his friend the banker 

“Reddy’s week was spent in reluctant self-reckoning that left him exhausted rather than enlightened.”

“That night, in his striped pyjamas and vest, on their narrow double bed, Arvind came alive as never before, to every sound from the bathroom.”

“Love had imbued him with an exalted sense of life’s purpose and an urge to live up to its awesomeness. He wanted to seduce his ladylove with a lofty self-image; versifier or film reviewer doubling as estate manager wouldn’t do.”

“‘Listen we should be grateful; such a big family here, brothers and sisters-in-law, Bapu my father. They care, you know? What, what if we were…just us…me in the shop and you all dressed up, restless and someone rings the bell, some dark handsome guy with a twitch, lonely, hungry for other people’s wives…?’ He stared at the mosaic floor, shielding his eyes from that piercing light (in his wife’s eyes).” Mahesh’s obsessions turn Arvind paranoid

“No one spoke, none moved a muscle; they could hear Ranjan wheezing. Mahesh thought he heard someone gasp, a roar sounded in his ears and time collapsed, an image flashed before him; a man reading a news item and knowing he was condemned to the shadows, to ponder which was an accident, life or death or both and if so, then were they meaningless?” Denouement at The Wayside Inn  

“‘Women! You never know with them. One minute this, another minute that. But what the fucks I say, they were one finally, right? He thought life could be rushed she knew death would not wait. No difference!” Arvind’s judgement on the ill-fated couple

“‘Mahesh, ahh….you are a man of principles; a man of honour really, is what you are. That greedy swine Ranjan, what does he know about humanity! Compassion is a dirty word for him…lust…an animal is what he is. We - you and I - we are made for the exalted life. Join me, I need a man of your silences, strength…’” Reddy searches for a partner in his search for immortality

“Then the storm ceased and she opened her inflamed eyes to swirls of her regurgitation refusing to sink out of sight, her nostrils filling with the stench of her soured life and she put her hand into it, stirring the slime over the sinkhole, her sobs now like knife stabs in her parched throat, her mouth drained of all moisture, pain like a craw in her gullet piercing whenever she gulped.” Deepika’s payment time!

Images: Book Cover: Amazon.ca; Author: Hindu Business Line

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