Slumdog Millionaire garnered 9 Oscars and straddled the divide between Hollywood and Bollywood.
Vikas Swarup's second novel- 'Six Suspects'- does more. It unites two different philosophical and literary traditions in a timely and uniquely positive manner.
'Six Suspects' is a tightly plotted novel which shows how people of the most diverse origin and status are nevertheless interconnected and mutually interdependent. This is a very old idea, at the heart of every Indian Religion or system of thought.
But, Swarup's characters are not related to each other by notions of caste- that is hereditary status defining mutual obligations and entitlements- nor is their relationship helpfully mediated by the Law or Religion or Government Institutions, or the gradients established by Wealth or Celebrity or Education- for, in Swarup's Universe, everything has already been corrupted, no Social process is not dysfunctional.
Indeed, even the Family- the father son relationship- is shown to have degenerated with the rising violence implicit in the inequites of the system.
What abides, however, in Swarup's Universe is something purely metaphysical- a 'least action principle'- such that the working of chance is constrained to always maximize poetic justice by ironic reversal.
From the point of view of the detective novel, Swarup's reliance on coincidence, rather than a deterministic dynamics based on the principle of sufficient reason, appears to be a weakness. Yet the ironic reversals that characterize the narrative arcs of the various characters have a psychological truth, an illumining and liberative power, such that we readily acquit Swarup of laziness or doctrinaire thinking.
The result is that Swarup's Universe- though operating according to a different logic from the world we inhabit- nevertheless tells us more about our reality than any merely realistic or polemical work. But, Swarup insists- by his final plot twist- it is not enough to illumine reality. The point is to change it.
Since 9/11- or, for middle class Indians, the Mumbai attacks- the illusion has been shattered that one is safe within the fallout shelter constituted by one's Wealth, or Education, or Nationality, or Celebrity, or Beauty, or the plain fact of one's Innocence. At the moment, we have perforce to rely on Governments to act together to re-establish the status quo ante. But, as this decade draws to its miserable end, we realize that Governments make things worse- are bound to make things worse- so long as we do not accept the bedrock fact of our radical mutual interdependence and alter our perceptions and expectations on that basis.
In the Mahabharata, one chapter of which is the Bhagvad Gita- we find a system of symmetries that conserve two fundamental principles- karma and dharma.
Karma- the law of cause and effect- is nothing but Swarup's poetic justice achieved by means of an ironic reversal. Karma defines the trajectory of the individual, but because it functions ironically- i.e. by pointing backwards to an underlying harmony that had been breached rather than providing data for the shaping of a pragmatic heuristics- its purpose is the inculcation of Wisdom rather than the accumulation of Knowledge.
Dharma- the path of righteousness- is what knits people together. What is the highest Dharma? It is to empathize with the other and adjust one's behavior accordingly. This is what happens in Swarup's 'Six Suspects'. People change or pay the price. Dharma is what redeems and delivers from the grip of karma.
The Bhagvad Gita deals with a difficult question. Why can't one simply stop the world coz one want's to get off? Why not simply say- "I'm done with this. I don't care any more. Rob me, cheat me, kill me- I don't care. I just won't play any more."
The Gita tells us that whether you act or refuse to act, there will still be consequences. Consequences you can't escape no matter which brand of Stoicism you cultivate.
One of Swarup's six suspects is a Screen Goddess who refuses to act in a porn film. But her refusal to act doesn't matter because her double acts in it anyway! Why does she have a double? Well, she felt pity for someone who looked so much like herself, trapped in the same sort of milieu as her own younger sister. In any case, it was so convenient. Thus, though, a reader of Neitzche, she lets her guard down- as we all let our guard down- for reasons of pity, but really convenience, and this double we will always have with us- except, if we refrain from acting, the double acts and we become its shadow that Retribution seizes.
The Western reader may find nothing novel about the concept of 'the double'- Edgar Alan Poe, Doestoevsky and so on- however notice that Swarup is using the double in a wholly Indian way. Instead of rivalry- or the logic of Girardian 'mimetic desire' by which the double must die in order for the original to live- both or which the West is constrained to by its 'Final Judgement' Eschatology- Swarup shows us a way one can co-exist with the double. Indeed, one learns from that reflection to abandon one form of life to the other who desires it, so as to re-invent oneself- to be reborn, as is the Film Star at the end of Six Suspects.
Thus Vamadeva, in the Rg Veda, confronting his double- a scene as frightening as anything in Edgar Alan Poe!- nevertheless puts India on a different trajectory to that of the West.
Like most Indians, I have- in the past- had a prejudice against Indians writing in English as opposed to their mother-tongue. I suspect such people of showing off or desiring money or pushing forward some mischievous ideology.
Of course, if one's mother tongue is English, that is a different matter. But still, the fact that English is the language of those whose profession involves absorption in 'symbol manipulation'- operating at a level several degrees removed from (though, perhaps, still founded on) the realities of an extraordinarily exploitative- or, if that is no longer so, then, still terribly inequitable- socio-economic system, means that you have a literature that is either aimed at the ex-Colonists or, merely, an elite pastime. It can not tackle head on- as opposed to by way of ideology or gesture politics- the question the vernacular literatures deal with- viz. how Morality- not to mention Spirituality- is still possible within a Lebenswelt founded upon injustice and violence.
Swarup is, by profession, a 'symbol manipulator'. Yet, because he uses the same principle of poetic justice as the Mahabharata, we can say his novel is truly Indian while, of course, being vastly entertaining and absorbing to a Western audience with no prior interest in India.
Perhaps, his scathing critique of Indian society- 30 years ago he would have been drummed out of the Foreign Service simply for suggesting there were poor people in India- is the natural consequence of his mastery of the principle of poetic justice. His understanding of karma has changed his own karma.
His situation parallels the great change in India whereby 'symbol manipulation', rather than being parasitic, has been established as the way to reverse the vicious circle of poverty whereby exploitation has to increases as poverty increases because of that very exploitation.
India has changed.
Angrezi boli (English language) is no longer yoked to the Angrezi goli (English bullet) which permitted exploitation to increase exponentially and reduced vast classes of people to a sub-human status.