Shakti by Rajorshi Chakraborti (Penguin Random House NZ, 2019), 20, 336pp, $36
A common critique of superhero narratives is their inherent fascist tendencies. Superheroes exist in dysfunctional societies, and their powers necessarily exist outside of the law. Obviously, this is because the law in their world is corrupt and those with power can’t be trusted. The superheroes’ vigilantism becomes a way of restoring some sort of moral equilibrium. In many superhero narratives, the consequence of this vigilantism is largely skirted over: writer and reader generally assume, to borrow a line from Dylan, that ‘to live outside the law, you must be honest’.
A strand in film criticism (particularly in studies of masculinity) over the last few decades looks at the way popular superhero films in actual fact are not politically subversive in the slightest. In many respects, over the years popular superhero films have tended to match the prevailing political climate. The hypermasculine world of 80s Hollywood action cinema, for example, matched the chest-thumping Cold War rhetoric of Reagan. The timid and uncertain superheroes of the early 2000s mirrored a post 9/11 uncertainty (soon to be replaced by morally dubious and simplistic action figures, which matched the USA’s actions in the Middle East).
Rajorshi Chakraborti draws on these critiques in his new novel Shakti. It’s set in contemporary Kolkata, in a political climate in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling party, the BJP, gain more and more control over life in India. Teacher and (anonymous) newspaper agony aunt Jaya finds herself embroiled in teenager Shivani’s unsettling story. She’s unable to help before Shivani tragically dies. What is more, Jaya’s servant Arati is claiming an unusual superpower, following a visitation from goddess Manasa (chiefly known as a goddess of snakes). Unexpectedly, Jaya finds herself with her own superpower: being able to read people’s thoughts.
Once Jaya learns how to control her superpower, she’s convinced of her clear sense of duty and purpose. However, she comes to realise that the superpower wasn’t granted to her with the best motives. Nor is it something that she has complete control over. As the novel progresses, Jaya finds herself having to confront some of contemporary India’s social issues – and gets more and more out of her depth.
India’s clumsy and obvious lurch to fascism via Modi and the BJP is largely ignored in contemporary Western media. This political shift is strongly allied to a rise in Hindu fundamentalism, where a sort of Hindu exceptionalism is used to justify a brutal crackdown on minority populations (principally Muslim populations). This has led to recent pogroms against Muslim populations and specific anti-Muslim laws. This is also not to mention India’s shocking problems with sexual violence and its treatment of women. Moral panics have been fuelled both by social media (WhatsApp and Facebook in particular) and mass media, where a number of Fox News-esque channels jostle with each other to sound the most outraged. As a result, India is almost the textbook example of a ruling party defining and controlling the narrative for its own end.
Chakraborti directly confronts these concerns by focusing his narrative on three women from different classes. This gives the narrative a broad sweep, and Chakraborti uses it to trace convincingly a strongly patriarchal and class-riven society. The men are dubious and untrustworthy, but carry considerable power over the women. The characters are also trapped within their class/caste.
Jaya is initially convinced that she can defy the narrative-setting of such dominant political forces. She comes to realise that Shivani and Arati were being manipulated by political forces, rather than an actual Hindu goddess. In reality, the superpowers not only reflect the prevailing political environment, they’re actually created by politicians for their own purposes. The women are expendable as soon as their superpower has reached the end of its political usefulness. In this respect, the novel slyly weaves Hindu mythology to show how easily it has been manipulated by those in power. It also satirises the dubious and cosy relationship between religion and politics.
Jaya’s confidence in her own abilities is systematically chipped away. At first, she works out how to use the mass media and its quest for scandal for her own ends. She also takes advantage of an almost prudish societal view of sexuality. She can critique and internally mock those gullible enough to believe a god has granted them power, but she comes to realise her much more mundane and middle-class concerns have been similarly used to manipulative effect. The mass media that she thought was on her side, simply shifted to using her to scapegoat leftist or Muslim politicians. In effect, each moment of collusion draws her, or any individual, further and further towards outright collaboration.
Chakraborti is interested in how we can undo such dominant narratives. With this, and in his last book, The Man Who Would Not See, he has established himself as a master of writing unreliable protagonists. He writes self-deception so well that you hope he doesn’t adopt a Method Acting approach to his writing. This is helpful from a reading perspective too – the narrator tends to explain so much that it allows Chakraborti to explain the intricate (and at points occasionally obtuse) narrative in a more straightforward manner. However, as the book progresses, you can’t really trust everything you read. What seemed like signposts instead become dead ends. Chakraborti also makes compelling use of dreams and fantastical elements to make the narrative more unstable.
It is all told with a light touch. Chakraborti maintains a sardonic humour throughout, even as the novel deals with heavy political themes. The narrative careers along, while Chakraborti also impressively manages to draw a detailed social environment. I suspect readers would benefit from some passing knowledge of India’s current political situation. In that case, the novel almost shifts from being magical realism (which a number of critics have already pointed out) to straight realism. However, in a global environment where religion and narratives of exceptionalism are being manipulated by fascist wannabes, it’s potent stuff.
The question posed by the book is how to confront this dominant environment. Chakraborti creates a kind of solidarity from the women’s victimhood. This suggests that it’s not actually a superpower that allows you to change the world. The women recognise how expendable they really are in the eyes of the system, so they might as well team up. The more invisible you are (literally, in some cases), the more you can build networks to challenge the powerful. As the novel ends suddenly – with a sequel obviously to follow – that sense of solidarity offers brief solace to readers who have had to confront some of India’s stark political and social issues.
BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM is a novelist and reviewer based in Wellington. He has written five novels, published by Lawrence & Gibson. His 2017 novel Sodden Downstream was shortlisted for the Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction at the 2018 Ockham Book Awards, and his fourth, A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse (2016) was longlisted for the 2017 award. He is currently working on his sixth novel, tentatively titled Sprigs.