Millennium Post

Portrait of a corrupt babu as a householder

Amitabha Bagchi’s new book examines the individual behind the stereotype.

You have met him before. On the other side of a wooden table, below a whirring fan, in a room, dusty and sloth-inducing, on a day when you had to stop everything else to get work done from the government. A sign and a stamp really, but that piece of paper mattered to you, so you paid the bribe, and came out of the room cursing The System. Hoping never to see him again.

He is the government babu, one among lakhs who make The System ‘work’. Naresh Kumar, PA to RK Asthana, IAS, director of an important government department, is one of them.

Between them, Naresh and Asthana have had a good run. If there was money to be made from favouring a deal, they have had their share. Naresh had been the one who had done the spadework for Asthana, managing the files, negotiating with the concerned parties and covering their tracks.

‘Naresh took the papers he was proffered and looked through them. One set of documents was for a penthouse apartment in a luxury development that the Bhan Group was building in Gurgaon. They were made out in the name of Mr Asthana’s son-in-law. The other set of papers confirmed Mr Asthana’s ownership of a plot of land in a newly designated township on the way to the airport in Bangalore. Satisfied that everything was in order, Naresh put the papers in a small safe he kept under his table. “These are okay,” he said.’ Such days are good work days for Naresh and over the years he has had many of them. Such days have got him properties, his daughter married well, his son’s future secured.

But has a lifetime of underhand dealings prepared Naresh for the bad times that befall him? When his married daughter has difficulty conceiving and the in-laws send her back, when his son who works for a call centre but moonlights as a pimp for the powerful Yadav is chased by the cops, can his money and connections see him through? Especially after he himself gets suspended along with Asthana on charges of corruption? As the world shrinks around him, Naresh is forced to look inwards and question the way he has lived his life and the choices he made.

Did he help out his colleague’s widow Pinki to honour an old friendship or has he secretly wanted her all these years? Is he man enough to guard his family against any storm or would he escape at the first hint of trouble? Has corruption eaten away into his soul so much that he would leave his near ones in harm’s way to save trouble for himself?

As Naresh battles these questions, Amitabha Bagchi examines the moral condition of our times. The Householder is a brilliant tale of a world where being without power means living a half life. Or less. In lucid prose, he humanises the corrupt and brings out the householder in him. A must read.
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