First, an admission: this is the first Shobhaa Dé novel I have read. And I wish I hadn’t.
Sethji, Ms Dé’s latest offering, is the story of a cunning and ruthless politician from Mirpur in Uttar Pradesh who will go to any extent to win every battle. In the process, he will not spare anyone who poses a threat to him — not even the tabby cat that gave him the potentially fatal diphtheria when he was 12. Sethji is the leader of the Azaad Bharat Socialist Party (ABSP), a crucial coalition partner in the government. He has two wasted sons: Srichand, a lazy good-for-nothing, and Suraj, a good-looking and flamboyant rapist who is also the cynosure of Sethji’s eyes.
Sethji trusts no one (his first rule in politics) but for his “ravishing and aloof” daughter-in-law and lover, Amrita, who takes care of his every need — from ensuring he’s served food hot to seeing his deals through and cleaning up the mess that the family finds itself in every now and then. Amrita herself is an enigma, going about it all as her duty and only sometimes revealing her true feelings, emotions and passions.
From here, Ms Dé tries to weave a story around the slimy side of politics, the no-holds-barred power struggles, and the dirty wheelings and dealings. She throws in a good amount of masala in her “Hinglish” style. There’s rape (of a “pahadi” girl from the northeast), kidnapping, murder, Bollywood starlets, big businesses, tug of war over national highways contracts, and, of course, the news-hungry media. That’s a lot to fit in 290 pages, especially when about one-third of the novel is consumed by the sexcapades of various characters.
The plot remains weak, though the book does pick up in the second half, after Sethji is kidnapped. Ms Dé spends hardly any time on developing her innumerable characters, many of whom represent stereotypes and clichés. Like Himmatram, Sethji’s servile maalishwalla (masseur), who secretly considers himself superior to his master for having been born into a higher caste. Despite all his money and power, Sethji, smirks Himmatram, is no better than his barber, Bholanath, because the two belong to the same lowly subcaste. Then there’s Akshay Tiwari, “the powerful anchor whose job it was to make politicians squirm and wilt in his studio, while he conducted his aggressive interrogation at prime time”. Sounds familiar? There’s also Kavitaji, who “projected the picture of the perfect Bharatiya naari” with “the prominent ribbon of bright red sindoor she plastered into the parting of her jet-black hair”, which critics referred to as “Kavitaji’s airstrip”. She and her faction intend to bring down Sethji by withdrawing their support to the shaky coalition government that the ABSP is part of. And there’s Simran, “a dancer from the superhit Mithi Mithi”. And Bhau, who is rumoured to own half of Konkan, most of Pune and nearly all of Mumbai. But now his hold over Mumbai is slipping rapidly and his frailty is a matter of concern to his party workers. Sounds familiar again? The only character that appears to have been crafted with some care is Amrita’s; it’s enigmatic and nuanced.
All in all, Sethji is a roller-coaster ride, speeding through characters, situations, risqué encounters, power plays and locations — Delhi, Noida, Mumbai and Bihar. Poor Elvis Presley is also unnecessarily dragged into the book as Ms Dé introduces Rocky 1 and Rocky 2, the two pedigree dogs smuggled into the house by Sethji. Rocky 2, it turns out, is a “hijra of a dog” with no b***s. But by the time Sethji discovers this abnormality, it is too late to “return to sender”, as Ms Dé writes, rather cheekily playing on Elvis Presley’s 1962 rock and roll hit.
To her credit, Ms Dé doesn’t make judgements about her characters. Whether Sethji is “loathsome” or “lovable”, she leaves it up to the reader to decide. Preachy she’s not. But that isn’t enough. A book, after all, has to leave you with something. A story? A character? A surprise? Or shock? And even if it takes you into familiar territory, it should at least have the power of narrative to make you look at it afresh. Loaded with clichés and the all-too-familiar cheap Bollywoodish plot, Sethji doesn’t even entertain.
In the acknowledgements, Ms Dé mentions former Congress president Sitaram Kesri. She writes, “I would have loved to thank the late Sitaram Kesri, God bless his soul, since he intrigued me sufficiently to go forth and create Sethji.” It’s no secret that Kesri was branded a villain by many for pulling the rug from under two prime ministers’ feet – H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral – in a span of 11 months. The first was when the Budget session was about to begin and the other when the Indo-Pak talks were being planned. Both moves had thrown the country into political turmoil. Even so, I wonder how Kesri would have felt about this “compliment” after reading Sethji. Ms Dé, who has returned to fiction with this book after over 15 years, also writes, “Sethji crawled in my head over a decade ago, and refused to go away. I took that as a sign and started writing the novel.” If only she had let him stay there — in her head.
290 pages; Rs 250