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A satirical take on political happenstances

Life&More May 1, 2019
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Saurabh Tankha

Writers, as most of us know, get inspired from real-life people and real-life incidents, though only occasionally, to weave them into their creative works. Their aim is to highlight the happenstances up, close and personal, some of which get lost in the black & whites of daily newspapers or get buried under the deafening and directionless arguments on news channels. Author Tina Biswas’ The Antagonists (Fingerprint!; Rs 350) is an intriguing political tale which assumes greater significance as the General Elections 2019 are on.

A near-perfect story that merges facts with fiction, The Antagonists tries to unearth the dark side of the goings-on in contemporary politics of West Bengal. Like Tina Biswas’s earlier works (her debut novel  Dancing With The Two-Headed Tigress and The Red Road) which were much appreciated by readers, The Antagonists too has been lapped up by book-lovers and critiques alike. And rightly so. The author has a strong grip on the political scenario in India, more so Kolkata. Though Tina stays with her husband and a young daughter in London, she has closely studied Indian politics, courtesy having read Philosophy, Economics and Politics at Oxford. She credits the advent of Internet and social media as the tools that made her India connect easier. “I read Indian newspapers online and watched news channels to keep myself abreast of the latest happenings on the political front. My parents stay in Kolkata for a few months every year and there are relatives from whom I know what is going on locally so I know what is happening at the ground level in the city,” says Tina. And then there are blogs, tweets, online forums, YouTube which come in as handy piece of information for the author.

The story of The Antagonists takes off with industrialist and philanthropist Sachin Lohia whose hospital catches fire, leaving over a hundred people dead. With the world demanding an answer for this deadly mishap, Lohia is seen as a perfect scapegoat by the West Bengal chief minister, Devi with the elections round the corner. She even calls for a press conference outside the hospital which has just been damaged by fire to further her political career. The author neatly captures the indifferent mood at the venue:

In front of the hospital, on its steps, a cartoonish podium had been set up. Behind it: Devi. Under her nose: a proliferation of microphones, attached roughly by gaffer tape. Behind her: a gaggle of followers, their faces various shades of brown, some excited, others indifferent, yet others serious and intent. There was no distance between Devi and these people; their bodies were actually touching hers. Indeed, the only sign that marked out Devi was that she was a woman and the rest were men. The followers looked at the cameras, proudly waiting to be captured for posterity. The spectre of those who had burned to death did not seem to dampen their eagerness to be a part of the proceedings.

The author has even mentioned minute details of the characters and their traits: “Devi checked her watch, an old Seiko, with a battered leather strap and a slightly scratched bezel and face. Another advisor had once suggested that she might want to, if not upgrade, then at least buy a new one, but why should she have? It still told the time correctly and that’s what it was for – telling the time. No need for unnecessary extravagance.”

Or where a character recalls what another one tells him to do to stay calm. “Sachin took a deep breath and remembered what Anil had advised him: he had to absorb the people’s anger, make it his own. The mistake would be to put up his defences and let their anger bounce off him. Keep your head held high but don’t puff out your chest. Keep your tone even without being monotonous. Keep eye contact but avoid staring. Don’t scratch your bollocks.”

Tina Biswas successfully and convincingly highlights various burning issues including land mining and other political incidents that see the light of the day every now and then in our country. The story of The Antagonists is loaded with political and social satire and is worth a read. Prefer not to miss this interesting fictional tale which has stark similarities with a number of real life persons you happen to know.

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