Sunday, 8 July 2012

Book Review: The Angel’s Share by Satyajit Sarna

This is the football generation – the kids who turned their back on cricket and swore undying loyalty to the English Premier League, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Messi, Ronaldo etc. They wouldn’t be caught dead playing cricket much less talk about it. In The Angel’s Share, narrator Zorawar Chauhan doesn’t talk about cricket even once other than to say ‘we were the first generation of Indians for whom football was the biggest sport in the world, for whom cricket was the other sport.’ Zorawar’s also appears to be the first generation in modern India to practice free sex and do drugs with such casual abandon. After five years of football, fun and frolic at the National Law School of India University, India’s premier law school, these youngsters go on to join prestigious corporate law firms or go overseas to work or to study further.

When liquor is stored in barrels, some of it will evaporate. This evaporation results in a higher density of sediments, making the leftover fluid liquid even tastier. The ancients who did not understand the reason behind the loss in volume, assumed that angels had taken their share of the stored ambrosia. Did an angel do the same with a barrel full of budding young lawyers when Zorawar Chauhan’s best friend (and room-mate) Sasha Kapur was stabbed to death by a bunch of drunken men? Like Zorawar, Sasha was also about to leave the hallowed portals of NLSIU, on the cusp of becoming a qualified lawyer. Of all the friends Zorawar had, Sasha was the most talented footballer. Zorawar tells us that 'Sasha was just classes above us all. He was effortless, like an animal born to play football. His balance was immaculate. His positioning was perfect. When he was harrying for the ball, he would ruck up his shorts and snarl and dart sideways, eating up space. When he finally committed to the challenge, there was a subconscious calculus that was never wrong. He’d come away with the ball and dribble it out of defence, almost foolishly confident in his ability to find safe passage. .... Sometimes I thought he could be better, because he didn’t really work on his game. There were evenings when I would head out of the door and he wouldn’t come because he wanted to sleep and read, or he wanted to think about a project. Those who have talent given to them, the way Sasha had it, rarely respect the work the average have to put in to get to the same level.'

If Sasha was the angel’s share, the angel took too much, Zorawar tells us.

In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Fowler feels some remorse after Pyle is killed by the Communists, but not too much even though it was Fowler who had tipped the communists off about Pyle’s movements. In The Angel’s Share, Raghav feels remorse for Sasha’s death because he had borrowed Sasha’s car for a trip to the bakery (without telling Sasha about it) and if he hadn’t borrowed Sasha’s car, Sasha would not have run out of petrol on that fateful night when he was marooned near the lake along with Faiza, Malaika and Raghav and 'a Sumo full of men, hungry for women', stopped by. ‘In Raghav’s head, he had killed Sasha as surely as if he had plunged that knife into his throat.

The Angel’s Share is not just the story of Sasha. It is the story of Zorawar and a bunch of his friends and their angst. There’s Raghav, a killer football player, at ease everywhere, who knows how to talk to everyone, acquainted with sex, drugs and rock & roll even before joining NLSIU. Kelkar on the other hand works like a dog and has to try very hard for everything. Amlan is lazy, but his excess pride and delusional self-regard carries him forward. Kiran is the closest to being a normal human being, his porn collection, a curator’s delight. Jennifer, a nice girl from Mizoram, Zorawar’s girl-friend for some time, Kiran’s girl-friend some time later, suffers from extreme lack of confidence, her worries accentuated by mainstream India’s prejudices towards women from the north-east. Seshadri Ramachandran is the class nerd, effortlessly scoring top grades, all set for a Rhodes scholarship, only to falter at the end.

The post-modern culture prevalent within the fully residential National Law School does not go too smoothly down local throats. There are occasional fights between NLS students and the locals whom the former refer to as ‘Portuguese’. Nicknaming the locals ‘Portuguese’ is in a way symbolic of how the students treat the problem, brushing it under the carpet. The Angel's Share deals with this conflict delicately, in a very balanced manner. Ultimately when Sasha is murdered, we are only told that the murderers came in a Sumo and not if they were locals. After the murder, when the police arrest the killers and give them the "treatment", Zorawar is unhappy at the use of torture, something so widely used by Indian policemen.

Like many of his classmates, Zorawar Chauhan joins corporate-ville after finishing his law degree. His grades were not spectacular, but the economy was booming and Zorawar was offered a job by Lawrence & Kamraj Associates, a leading law firm in Delhi. The money is good, but Zorawar is soon unhappy. The work which involves capital market securities issues, is mostly clerical and requires very long hours. The distant promise of a partnership is not good enough to motivate Zorawar who soon realises that the relative high pay is a trap since he is enmeshed in a lifestyle which requires him to work harder and suck up to the "system" even more. Zorawar briefly considers switching to litigation, but a chance encounter at a rape trial where a young girl is put through the wringer by a nasty defence counsel who tries to equate multiple boyfriends and a drinking habit with consent, puts paid to that.

Author Satyajit Sarna writes well, exceedingly well, his limpid prose and felicity with words carrying this engrossing story to further heights of reading pleasure. Does Zorawar continue with his job or does he opt out? What happens to each of Zorawar’s friends? Why/How did Seshadri fail to win the Rhodes scholarship? Do please read this excellent novel to find out.

The Angel’s Share is a work of fiction, but for those familiar with NLSIU Bangalore, The Angel’s Share will turn out to be a trip down memory lane. Characters such as history teacher Ms. K. R. Joseph, Josie for short, Ramnatha Reddy who teaches procedure, places such as Surya Bar where cheap booze is available for needy students within walking distance of the NLSIU campus, the clinic in the heart of Bangalore City where a medical examination heralds the beginning of life as an NLSite, Pecos and Nagarbhavi itself, are easily identifiable. I graduated from NLSIU in 1998 and I should confess that I was shocked by the total change in values and behavior, as depicted in The Angel’s Share, even keeping in mind that Zorawar Chauhan and his friends most probably represent a very small fraction of any recent batch of graduates.

Since The Angel’s Share is as much "fact" as "fiction", it is very likely to be treated as entirely "fact" by some readers, though it is supposed to be a work of fiction. This makes me wonder - is it fair for a work of fiction to be based partly on "fact" in a manner that makes it difficult to separate "fact" from "fiction"? Let me use an easier example to illustrate my point. Arundati Roy’s God of Small Things is a work of fiction. However, it is also partly auto-biographical, drawing on nuggets from Roy’s childhood and her family members’ characters, in particular her maternal uncle and her mother who fought a court battle over the partition of the family property. Roy’s maternal uncle appears in God of Small Things in the form of Uncle Chacko and it is not a flattering picture. Was Roy’s depiction of Uncle Chacko a fair and exact portrait of her real uncle? Is Uncle Chacko less nasty than his real-life persona or nastier? We’ll never know and since it is a work of fiction, it would be very difficult (though not impossible) for Roy’s uncle to bring a successful charge of defamation against Roy, even though I am sure that all his friends and acquaintances who read God of Small Things would have recognised him.

In the same vein I wonder, is the portrait of National Law School in The Angel’s Share a fair one? Has it been made rosier in some respects? Or is it an unfair depiction? Are the real-life personae of Josie, Ramnatha, Seshadri, Kelkar, Raghav, Amlan etc. happy at the way they have fared in The Angel’s Share? In any event, the portrayal of corporate lawyers is definitely not flattering, whatever be the element of truth in it. I agree that there are a number of corporate lawyers who work very long hours, don’t get much exercise and "persuade" their juniors to follow suit. However, I know from experience that there are as many who don’t do all that. While reading Sarna’s rant against the "system", I was tempted to ask, didn’t Sarna know what a corporate law firm job entailed when he graduated from NLSIU? Surely the various vacation placements all law students go through would have given Sarna a fair idea of the vagaries of each stream within the legal profession even before he joined Lawrence & Kamraj Associates? There are other clichés too, such as when an Arab client is shown offering to buy the Reserve Bank of India when an RBI approval is needed to proceed with a transaction!

Satyajit Sarna, the author of The Angel’s Share, graduated from National Law School in 2008. In September 2007, Alyosha Kumar, a final year NLSIU student was stabbed to death in Nagarbhavi, not far from NLSIU’s precints. It’s not too difficult to draw the conclusion that the character Sasha Kapur is based on Alyosha Kumar, though in real life Alyosha would have been a year senior to Satyajit. Sarna admits as much in the first chapter where he says, ‘If there were a way to tell this story fairly, I’d barely show up. I’d skim around the edges like a fruitfly, landing briefly on the scene and then buzzing away. And even if I was witness only to a little of his story, a handful of years, I feel bound to give testimony, because at times, I was the sole witness.’ Even though The Angel’s Share is as much a diatribe against the legal profession as it is about Sasha and Sarna ends his book by saying thus: 'I think of Sasha often and I will think of him yet. But I have now drifted beyond what he could teach me. By the telling of this story, I now feel free of the need to keep him as my oracle beyond this point, I must find my own way. And therefore, here ends my testimony. This is what I saw and this is my truth. You may think that there are things I have exaggerated, or concealed, that maybe I have said too much. You may imagine that I have perjured myself in the telling. If I have, it is no matter of yours. The truth of it lies only between me and the angel.'

Fair enough Satyajit, all the best to you as you tread new paths, go hiking in the Himalayas and make new plans! Sasha/Alyosha, may you rest in peace.

Update: It has been clarified that Satyajit Sarna and Alyosha Kumar were classmates at NLSIU. They were also roommates throughout, except for the first year. In The Angel’s Share, Zorawar Chauhan and Sasha Kapur are roomies from year one.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if this answers your question, but most of the real-life people whom I recognise as the prototypes for Kiran, Josie, Seshadri etc. are in fact named in the acknowledgements at the back of the book (some of them are early draft readers), so one can assume they'd have got the chance to at least speak up if they were unhappy with the way they were portrayed.

Satyajit Sarna said...

Thank you for what I view as a kind review. I will clarify a few things:

A. This is fiction. Things are twisted, bent out of shape, morphed and outright made up in order to make sense while still sitting in the millieu.

B. NLS was a different place in those years from what it is now, and I assume, what it was in your time. A very troubled time, and some very strange things happened. I have tried to be honest about the problems while working within the framework of fiction.

C. With regard to law firms, a lot of junior associates are very quickly disabused of the notions they have. Some choose to leave, others choose to continue and suffer, and they may or may not do well. There are equally many who enjoy it and love the environment and they tend to go on to do well for themselves. This is one perspective, presented fictionally.

D. Zorawar Chauhan is fictional. He is as real as Peter Pan or HAL 9000. Please consider his voice a fictional one, exaggerated, deranged from circumstances and acting out. You have visited a dark part of a depressed persons. If you feel it to be so compelling, I consider that a victory as a writer of fiction.

Thanks for what otherwise seems to be a most positive review. I'm glad you read the book and appreciated it. I hope this helps.

Best regards,
Satyajit Sarna

Winnowed said...

Satyajit, thanks for the clarification. Yes, let me reiterate that I personally liked The Angel's Share.

@ Anonymous - I assume so too. My point was a moot one.