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Why Weight Loss is provocative

Jai Arjun Singh | February 20, 2006

This first: Upamanyu Chatterjee's new novel isn't easy to get through. The subject matter in itself will be enough to put many people off, and then there's the small matter of how the author seems to delight in his protagonist's depravity. Even if you're not easily offended and don't have gossamer-thin sensitivities, you might find yourself squirming during some passages. Nor does Weight Loss (Penguin/ Viking, Rs 495) have the redeeming virtue of being consistently entertaining. It's very funny in the first few chapters, tedious around the middle and then picks up steam again somewhere in the final third.

If you're still with this review though, and if you're in a very adventurous mood, give this book a chance. For all its unevenness, there's much in it that's provocative -- in particular its use of subversive humour to bring a degree of believability, even poignancy, to the actions of a character no reader would otherwise be able to identify with.

That character is a deviant named Bhola and Weight Loss is about his strange life from age 11 to age 37. Bhola's attitude to most of the people around him depends on their lustworthiness and his tastes are not, to put it very mildly, conventional. Sex is a form of depravity for him and he fetishises everyone from teachers to roadside sadhus to servants; he progresses from fantasising about the portly family cook Gopinath to falling 'madly in love' with a vegetable-vendor and her husband. This last obsession spans the length of the book and most of his life -- he even ends up studying at a college in an obscure hill-station hundreds of miles from his home for no other reason than that he wants to be near the couple.

At various other stages in his life, Bhola gets expelled from school for defecating in a teacher's office, participates in an inexpertly carried out circumcision (one of the book's many manifestations of the 'weight loss' motif) and engages in sundry forms of debauchery. Agastya Sen, the hero of Chatterjee's irreverent-enough first novel, English, August, would have barfed at some of this. The delightfully depraved Portnoy (from Philip Roth's classic Portnoy's Complaint, which this book initially resembles) would at least have blushed.

And yet, however twisted Bhola is, he's convincing on his own terms. Chatterjee sets up and defines the character so well, it's possible to believe that he would behave the way he does: that he would, for instance, make a crucial life-altering choice on the basis of an obsessive lust. If one of the chief purposes of fiction is to provide us a window into another way of life, Weight Loss does succeed in doing that to an extent.

The question then is, what can we possibly gain from following the misadventures of such a grossly unbalanced character? But it's futile to take this book at face value. The entire premise is so extreme that the best way to approach it is to think of it as a deliberate distortion -- the exaggeration of characters and situations to draw attention to the pathologies of our own lives. To this end, Chatterjee's humour is an incredibly effective device. He's better than almost any contemporary Indian writer at being irreverent about our sacred cows and showing us what comical little creatures we are at precisely those times when we are taking ourselves most seriously. The humour also serves as a buffer, shielding the reader from the darkness of some of his observations.

Chatterjee's prose has sometimes been criticised for being overdone, but this quality helps him achieve a very specific comic effect founded on the building up of hysteria. When he uses a long string of words machine gun-style to describe something, it's done very deliberately -- the effect is very different from, say, the overuse of adjectives in a florid writing style. For instance, early in the book, when Bhola is caned by his physical education teacher, we are told that 'one of his classmates, Anantaraman, a pale, sensitive, shy, nervous and complex boy, passed out.' The simultaneous use of all those words gives the sentence a hysterical effect that fits very well with the overall mood of the passage.

Dissecting humour is perhaps a pedantic thing to do, but generally speaking Weight Loss is a book that deserves a closer look. It doesn't merit an unqualified recommendation -- it's much too squalid and uneven for that -- but it's one of the most interesting works of fiction we've seen in recent months.

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