THE BANE OF contemporary Indian writing in English is a surge in the number of “competent” novels, where the authors fall short of breathing life into their writing. One can blame a trend where emerging Indian writers in English are a bit too heavily invested in structured creative writing programmes—systems that incentivise motivation, competence, and enterprise over personal or artistic idiosyncrasy.
Karan Madhok is a distinguished alumnus from a reputed creative writing programme in the US. His novel carries a decent representation of the brute forces that govern Indian society—in this case, the dovetailing of class and communal politics. In A Beautiful Decay, Shankar, a factory owner in Varanasi, panics when his workers start to unionise. He pleads with a local priest-politician to engineer a communal riot. Though the riot successfully divides and conquers the workers, it does not go morally unanswered. Years later and thousands of miles away, his innocent 21-year-old son, Vishnu, pays a terrible price.
However, Madhok’s decision to make dead Vishnu the narrator and the central character probably circumscribes the novel’s impact. The author has made a valiant effort to inject into the narrator’s voice a degree of humour and unsentimental appraisal of his own death. But there were better possibilities for the novel if the central character was the dead young man’s father. Shankar rose from a nobody to a prominent businessman—a typical meritocrat. But he also possesses the vices in a meritocrat—lack of empathy, a domineering nature, and paranoia over losing what he had so painstakingly built.
Had Madhok dwelled more on Shankar’s traits, the novel could have perhaps been a sharp critique of the unchecked celebration of merit in this country. Another missed opportunity for the novel is its secondary characters, who are not sufficiently layered. Vishnu’s mother, sister, brother, and his friends in Washington seem to bounce the same unanimated grief off each other.
Madhok’s writing has flashes of brilliance. In one scene, a grieving man in a taxi and a sympathetic driver give each other five stars on an app after a ride. In that moment, the reader is told something profound about contemporary society. In today’s high noon of techno-capitalism, every human interaction is aggressively being documented and monetised.
However, a moment here, a dialogue there is not enough for this novel to leave a lasting literary impact. The plot could have been more creatively erratic than this geometric cycle of injustice repaid with injustice. One wishes the narrative had pictured the challenges of engineering a riot—the latent tensions that explode into violence, the difficulties involved in unlocking them at short notice, the actual events that deviate from the plan, and finally, the moral and strategic losses even for the winner.
Overall, Madhok’s writing process seems journalistic, as though it was written in some haste and then edited with great care and some flair. The novel does beg the question whether creative or fiction writing can be learnt within a structured system. No doubt, while questioning the role of training in the context of acquiring literary excellence, one cannot discount the Nobel winning Kazuo Ishiguro, who studied creative writing from the University of East Anglia. But did his towering achievements come from his training or despite it?
Systematic learning is never without advantages. The strengths of a trained writer are reflected in this novel by Madhok. Varanasi and Washington, where his novel is set, are described meticulously. The prose is bristling with literary devices, but none have been deployed inaccurately. Madhok’s rigorously revised syntax hovers far above the writing standards of the average educated Indian, who has been instructed in the English language.
However, the meticulousness, accuracy, and rigour can forge a double-edged sword. They add up to overall competence, transmuting literature into a computer programme—smooth and error free. Perhaps what is missing is the peculiarity, caprice, and ingenuity that produce literary joy.