Rupa Publications | 304 pages | Published: January 2017
I haven’t read Sorabh Pant’s two previous books—The Wednesday Soul and Under Delhi—so I picked up Pawan: The Flying Accountant without any idea of what kind of writer he is, or what kind of book it was. I liked the name, which suggested that it was a goofy comedy of a corporate slave who discovers that he has superpowers and begins to uphold justice after office hours—a kind of flying Dilbert story.
But while there is comedy in the novel, the story is much more firmly situated in the genres of mythology and fantasy than the title might suggest. There’s plenty of wisecracking from the characters, but at the book’s heart is a serious story about a character that doesn’t fit among human beings, and chooses anyway to wage a battle for them.
The protagonist, Arjun Singh, is a demigod with immense physical powers, who is recruited by a rogue team assembled by a liquor baron to help assist the Indian armed forces. As the book progresses, you learn that Singh is part of a lineage of creatures known as Pawans (the book’s version of the Ramayana’s monkey race) who have superhuman strength and have worked alongside the country’s defence forces for decades. But Arjun Singh is reluctant to sign on, cynical as he is of the country’s political scenario. He finally gives in for the money, and joins a ragtag group of fighters known as the Secular Gang whose mission is to rescue four fishermen who have been captured by the Chinese government. The rest of the plot follows this mission to the border town of Tawang, where Singh and his team members are tested in battle.
But while there is comedy in the novel, the story is much more firmly situated in the genres of mythology and fantasy than the title might suggest.
Given that Pant is a comedian, it’s natural to expect the book to be funny. And it is, though it’s primarily in silly asides and quips than any deeper situational or conceptual humour. And if his style isn’t to your taste, those jokes can distract from the plot, and reduce characters to caricatures rather than allow them to have real depth. But if they don’t bother you, the book proves to be a decent read, though the prose is occasionally sloppy (sample: “it looked like a toy town, a Lego set that represented more than residence of a lakh.”)
Pant has competent writing chops, though, and he fares best in his action scenes, such as one in which the protagonist faces off with a robot dragon. He sees “a meteor blaze through the dim orange sky and smash into the dragon in front him. The dragon shook in protest as the meteor crushed the cockpit. The blazing ball changed direction and smashed once again into the dragon.” That’s not great, but it’s vivid enough to keep you in the story. (Some latter parts of the book are surprisingly gory, and move firmly away from anything resembling comedy.)
Overall, the book is a worthy read for Pant’s fans, revealing as it does a very different and substantial side to his creative powers. It’s remarkable to think of the loud, jovial comic we’ve seen so much on stage sit down and compose a novel that touches on political questions of power and nationhood, and culminates in what is quite a moving climax. For non-fans, the book doesn’t quite achieve the literary heft it sets out to achieve, and so may be missable.