The Ballad Of Babel

Aravind Adiga in Himal Southasian:

Shikari_cover_20120702A truly first-rate novel of the corporate workplace hardly exists in Indian literature; equally rare is a novel of sustained psychological intensity. A book that combines these qualities, hence, should be greeted by much acclaim. The odd thing is that there has been just such a novel around for years, and hardly anyone seems to know about it. Published in 1979, Yashwant Chittal’s Kannada novel Shikari tells the story of Nagnath, a migrant from north Karnataka who has risen to a high-ranking position in a chemicals corporation in Bombay. When the novel begins, Nagnath has just been plunged into the biggest crisis of his adult life: he has been suspended from his job for an unknown offence. Eventually, he discovers that he is accused of complicity in a fire that has killed three people in the company’s factory in Hyderabad. Nagnath is a brilliant, if somewhat eccentric, chemical engineer, who has been warning his superiors about safety issues in the factory: someone has set him up for a fall. This is the shikar of modern-day India, where Darwinian instincts of aggression and self-preservation have migrated into the business world. As he slides into a world of corporate intrigue and paranoia, rife with accusatory letters, secret alliances, and messages of sympathy from unexpected sources, Nagnath becomes convinced that he has been framed by his firm’s deputy managing director, the aptly named Phiroz Bandookwala—although why Bandookwala wants to destroy him is still a mystery.

Shikari explicitly acknowledges its debt to Kafka in its first few sentences; then it goes to places that Kafka had never dreamt of. Even as Nagnath is coming to terms with Bandookwala’s treachery, he finds himself the victim of another act of betrayal. Nagnath, an orphan who educated himself with a scholarship from Bombay’s Saraswat Brahmin community, discovers that Srinivas, a childhood friend, is spreading word that his mother was a low-caste woman, and that he’s been masquerading all these years as a Brahmin. Srinivas has even gone all the way to Goa, the ancestral home of the Saraswats, to collect information about Nagnath’s true lineage.

More here.