Ritual by Uttaran Das Gupta
Pan Macmillan India, 2020
Paperback Rs 249/-
The old adage goes that fiction was born the day a Neanderthal boy came running out of a prehistoric cave crying “wolf! wolf!” But there was no wolf behind him. Fiction is a beautiful lie, told by a literary artist. A lie that has an underlying universal truth to it. Which makes it believable to readers, that they are willing to suspend their disbelief. Storytelling is as ancient as civilization itself.
Human beings have always been telling stories through epics, ballads, plays and novels. The art of storytelling gives human beings a sense of time and space. It records for posterity not only how the world existed, but also how the world was imagined.
The evolution of storytelling from verse to prose marks a development of human imagination with related influence of print capitalism. The demarcation between genre fiction and slice-of-life fiction becomes more apparent with time. Rarely do we come across authors like Italo Calvino or Julian Barnes, who can play around such demarcations. Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual falls in the category which belies categorization.
The blurbs by Madhulika Liddle and Sumana Roy use various genre-defining terms in acknowledged failed attempts to ascribe this novel to a category. “Detective novel”, “noir”, “literary thriller” are some of those. In poetry there’s the concept of volta and in plays we have peripety. In short stories, there’s the twist-in-the-tail; all of these indicate a sort of turnaround. Simplistically put, Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel is a series of turnarounds woven into the plot.
The novel starts with these two ominous sentences:
“The body of the first girl turned up on a vacant plot at Hindustan Park on 9 January 1989. The municipal corporation employee responsible for switching on the streetlamps was late that evening.” (p. 5)
The novel ends with these two innocuous sentences:
“A flash of lightning cut across the sky as we drove past Jatin Das Park towards the centre of the city. A storm was coming.” (p. 262)
Between these four sentences lies a mystery – made up of characters like the enigmatic ACP Ashutosh, his phlegmatic deputy Pradeep Batabyal, the shape shifting Rukmini Bose, the masquerading Muzammil Ibrahim, the antagonizing DCP Biswajit Mukherjee, the tragic Tim Taylor, the crime reporter Gayatri Vasudevan, the forestalling Asim Chatterjee, the misleading Dr. Sushovan Sengupta and the inconspicuous Yogi Premananda.
The novel is set in a charismatic Calcutta of political turmoil, which is home to an emerging religious cult, the Vasant Sena. The cult has a secret background story in New Zealand. The tone of Ritual is set by the lines —
“When the first body was found, the heart was missing. Someone had cut it out.” It is etched on the cover of the book.
And bodies keep piling up. No doubt Sumana Roy finished reading this novel in one sitting and felt “I’d had my heart scooped out by this gusty novel.”
This reviewer had to wait for a long time after reading the novel to dispel the dumbfoundedness the reading left him with. To speak the truth, this review is just a cover up of the actual reaction. One that he gave to the author immediately after reading Ritual. I blurted out over phone, “what about Yogi Premananda…what will Batabyal and Gayatri now do?” The response from the author was the obvious: “Sorry? Oh ahhahaa. For a moment I didn’t realize what you were saying. The characters seemed vaguely familiar to me.” The conversation ended with the author promising a sequel and the reader a review.
This is not a conventional review. It can fall within the ambit of reader-response criticism. Any book that leaves the reader demanding a sequel is, I suppose, a good measure of the author’s success. Thriller, noir or whatever Uttaran Das Gupta’s Ritual is, it demands to be read. And if there is a reader who knows Calcutta, he or she might like to visit Harrington Street or Princep Ghat looking for clues. This ‘review’ must end here, for the intended reader has been adequately sounded. Grab your copy of Ritual today. You don’t want to miss out on an experience worth cherishing.