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  Books   20 Apr 2024  Book Review | Jingoistic war fantasy presented as speculative fiction

Book Review | Jingoistic war fantasy presented as speculative fiction

Published : Apr 20, 2024, 12:41 pm IST
Updated : Apr 20, 2024, 12:41 pm IST

The novel also throws a unique geopolitical situation into the mix

Cover page of The Man Who Lost India
 Cover page of The Man Who Lost India

In the dystopian narrative of The Man Who Lost India, journalist Meghna Pant paints a grim picture of a future India ravaged by Chinese occupation in the year 2032. Through vivid hyperbole, Pant depicts the tumultuous aftermath of a devastating conflict, where China's relentless advance leaves India in ruins. The story unfolds in Lalbag, a small town in Punjab, which miraculously survives due to the mythical presence of a Shiva Linga atop Mount Akaho.

The narrative then delves deeper into the lives of Lalbag’s residents, primarily through the voice of Seth Saheb, one of the town’s wealthiest men. Seth's internal monologue paints a vivid picture of how the war has reshaped his world. His soliloquy weaves together the personal dramas of his family — love, betrayal, and illness — with the larger narrative of war and survival. While Seth Saheb serves as a central figure, the supporting characters lack depth and development. They often feel like mere vehicles for clunkily advancing the plot rather than fully realised individuals.

While the China-India war scenario offers a refreshingly unique backdrop, the novel’s portrayal of China falls short, especially taking into account that Pant travelled across China while researching for the book. She relies heavily on crude language and offensive stereotypes, diminishing the potential for a more nuanced exploration of the conflict. Terms like “dog squirting on fire hydrants” and “lion-penis eating Chinese” are not only distasteful but also detract from the narrative's seriousness. The derogatory terms and hyperbolic metaphors, border on sensationalism and xenophobia, detracting from the novel’s potential to provoke thoughtful reflection.

Another flaw lies in the depiction of female characters. They remain underdeveloped and terribly objectified. Descriptions like “opaline skin of milk and honey” or a yearning to be “consumed by man’s agony” sexualise female characters in a way that feels gratuitous and out of place within the story’s broader themes. From Seth’s daughter Ida, described in terms of her physical attributes, to Urmila, the servant’s wife portrayed as a witch-like figure reminiscent of historical witch hunts, female characters are reduced to archetypes that reinforce patriarchal norms and detract from the story’s authenticity.

The novel also throws a unique geopolitical situation into the mix. Israel stands as the sole beacon of hope, accepting Indian refugees. This creates a dramatic irony: Jerusalem, a holy land for another faith, becomes a “promised land” even for the displaced Hindus of Lalbag.

Despite these shortcomings, The Man Who Lost India has some intriguing elements. The narrative draws fascinating parallels to India’s past. Seth Saheb's ambition to build a “Black Taj” mirrors Shah Jahan's iconic monument, a symbol of both love and loss. Similarly, Ram, Seth’s servant, seeks to wield the sword of Aurangzeb against the Chinese, linking past conflicts to the present struggle. The abstract denouement, which hints at Hindu resurgence in Lalbag, lacks resolution and coherence, leaving readers with more questions than answers.

As the French literary theorist Roland Barthes stated, “Only after the author is dead, a reader is born.” In that spirit, one can comment that Pant could have gracefully developed the deeper thematic layers with subtext, symbolism and allegorical elements that reveal her underlying commentary on nationalism, identity or the human condition. While her ambition is commendable, her execution leaves much to be desired, highlighting the challenges of balancing fictitious speculations with meaningful social commentary.

The Man Who Lost India

By Meghna Pant

Simon & Schuster

pp. 308; Rs 499

Tags: book review 2024, the man who lost india, journalist meghna pant