Friday, April 5, 2013

Sethji by Shobhaa De

We all think we know Shobhaa De, she’s been around the block, she knows where it’s at & we assume she’s seen it all. So when she comes out with a book talking about politicians & corruption we all automatically think ‘this must be real’ or atleast I did. I really hope this isn’t the real thing though.

Sethji is the title of the new novel by this extraordinary woman; it follows the story of the titular character, his two useless sons & his daughter-in-law. But along the way, she takes her own sweet time explaining, detailing & drawing out the idiosyncrasies of a multitude of minor characters. Suffice to say that the story is long, drawn out & as complicated as an Ekta Kapoor soap which is running in its fourth year.

Sethji's character is loosely based on an amalgamation of many UP-based ‘Netajis’ with a loose morality; a loose understanding of hygiene & with a loose & colorful tongue. He is on the edge of losing all his political clout when his younger son  is caught up in a rape scandal but a clever tactic by his bahu takes the heat off for a bit. This starts off the story that is followed by the family being kidnapped in order to influence the awarding of a highways contract; which is then followed by a twist & turn of events that lead to murder, dramatic car chases & intense political shenanigans. One of these shenanigans includes a Thackeray-like character (Bhau) who with his sons & associates makes up the political & economic hierarchy in Mumbai.
It is Bhabhiji’s character that is the most well-defined after Sethji’s. She is the bahu that is the perfect Indian wife with a few glitches; her marriage is not a happy one & she is used & abused by all the men in her life. The true unhappy heroine.

The main characters are very well etched but that’s not saying much because she seems to give as much importance to the legion of side characters. They all are given back-stories, definite personalities & idiosyncrasies; which leads you to then start empathizing with them.  After all this, it was so surreal  that they only have small appearances & are never seen again after their character is explained; it is almost as if they were all dressed up with nowhere to go. A good example is Suresh; Bhau’s security head whose background is drawn impeccably alongwith his wife’s; whose battles of conscience & guilt are well documented & then he just disappears… never to return again.

There is also a lot of Hindi peppered throughout the dialogue; which is a bit jarring considering this is an English-language book. Being a Mumbaiite, I understand the Marathi dialogue but couldn’t come to understand the reason or the reasoning behind the dirty words that seem to be scattered throughout the book.

The sheer variety of subjects she covers is astounding; almost as if she had a to-do list of sorts that she was working her way through. De is an amazing story teller & really has a lot of things to say about a lot of things & this book was her perfect vehicle. I just don’t think if she was all that successful or maybe she just couldn’t build up the story or any empathy for the characters.

The TL;DR version: Sethji by Shobhaa De is a rather dirty, Bollywood-ised story about politics based in Delhi, Mumbai & Dubai. The multitude of characters & the incredible twists & turns in the storyline make sure that it will be a quick & fun read.

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