The novel “Legal Fiction” by Chandan Pandey, originally published in Hindi as “Vaidhanik Galp”, has been translated by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari.
The novel follows writer Arjun Kumar, who travels to the town of Noma on the UP-Bihar border, after getting a late-night phone call from his ex-girlfriend Anasuya. The reason — Anasuya’s husband, Rafique Neel has disappeared. When he arrives, he finds that the locals are determined to turn it into a case of ‘love jihad’ and soon Arjun realises things aren’t as they seem to be.
Told with psychological acuity, deft prose and inspired by true events from today’s India, “Legal Fiction” is a brilliant existential thriller and an extraordinary fable about the world we live in.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
The town was less than a kilometre away from the police station. It seemed to be lost in itself. Everyone looked as if they were occupied with something. Besides the many makeshift kiosks on the streets, the first store in the town was an electric sawmill, the noise from which could be heard from far away. The town grew crowded immediately after the mill. Sahadeo must have been feeling uneasy at the growing silence inside the car, so he said, ‘Sir, Bihar starts right after this settlement.’
He must have been familiar with this place and that is why he called it a ‘settlement’. I had been calling it a ‘town’.
‘What do you mean “Bihar starts from here”?’
‘It’s a paradise for smugglers and criminals, from that side and from this side too. If a new police chief comes on either side of the border, the miscreants cross over.’
I didn’t say anything but let out a laugh at this creative use of borders. Had Anjan Agarwal used the same technique to his benefit? The thought was a distraction and it got me to look outside the car. There were lots of hoardings and jostling banners on both sides of the street. Every hoarding was perhaps twenty-five to fifty metres apart. One advertised various discounts at Big Bazaar, but in blue and not the sparkling red that had become associated with the outlet. Only when we drove past it did I notice that the advert was for Bigger Bazaar and not Big Bazaar. It was a great imitation. Right behind it was a hoarding for a computer repair store that said in big letters: ‘A computer doctor, now in your town’. The text for the advertisement was replete with medical jargon. In fact, on the top-left corner of the hoarding, there was even a photograph of a man wearing a doctor’s white coat standing next to a computer screen.
The next hoarding had a random assortment of bright colours, and I couldn’t discern it very well. But after two or three more of these, it became clear that the people whose photos were featured on these hoardings were all the same. On the top were ten or twelve photos without any names. I could only recognize Swami Vivekananda. On his right were pictures of the Prime Minister and other Union ministers. Text had been stacked to the left and in the centre. One hoarding announced a pilgrimage to Kailash–Mansarovar. ‘Chalo Kailash!’ – Let’s go to Kailash! – the large type called out. A huge image of Lord Shiva was printed alongside, with the Ganga flowing out from his locks. To the right of the god, almost as big or perhaps bigger, was a photograph of a young man whose entire manner seemed calculated to convey humility and sincerity. Below his picture, typed in yellow letters, was his name and official position: ‘Amit Malviya – President, Mangal Morcha’.
The choice of colours could make one wonder if the banners had been put up in a great hurry. But the order in which they had been placed revealed that this was not the case. If the call for the pilgrimage was on the right side of the street, the same hoarding was on the left too – in the same size, with the same colour, people and text. The coordination was perfect. Even the hoardings that were put up right after repeated the message. Whoever had done this clearly did not want a single person passing by on the street to miss it.
A bhandara – a religious feast – was advertised on the next hoarding. It was similar in type and colour to the Kailash one, so it was not difficult to guess what it said. As the car came near it, I saw that the feast would go on for a week. The same photos were printed on the top, starting from Swami Vivekananda and ending with the Prime Minister. But while Lord Shiva had towered over the previous one, here it was the goddess Annapurna. The designer had been astute enough to add the deity’s name, given that she was not as popular as Shiva. Two photographs were printed to its right: one of Amit Jain – Treasurer, Mangal Morcha, and the other of Amit Malviya. These hoardings had been arranged in the same way too: frontback-right-left, four in all.
The next hoarding advertised a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi and Amarnath. If you ignored the many photos, it looked like the cover of an old T-Series album.
The one after that advertised a private university. The letters ‘BL(D)U’ were printed in large type, and the name followed in parentheses, ‘Baba Lakarnath (Deemed) University’. The photographs of two boys and a girl, all three wearing formal suits, were placed next to it. I couldn’t tell whether they were students at the college or professional models. The girl wore a collarless shirt, while the boys wore ties. The advertisement said admissions into courses like Management, Hotel Management, BEd, BSc, MSc, BCom, MCom, BA, MA, etc. were about to close soon, and to reserve a seat as early as possible. A phone number had been listed for enquiries, and on the corner to its right were small photographs of two men. The word ‘Principal’ was typed below one, with the name following in a very small font. Or perhaps I couldn’t read it because there was already so much text on the advert. The other photo was that of an older man with a glowing face, and below it were listed several academic degrees and awards. The awards looked to be of the literary kind, but our car had already zipped past the hoarding before I could read his name.
There was a traffic jam up ahead. Everybody had squeezed their vehicles in wherever they found some space, and now several cars were stuck on both sides. An Indica stood sideways. An autorickshaw’s front wheel popped out towards the right. Everybody honked relentlessly. Anasuya watched the mayhem. Thinking this could be a chance to start a conversation, I asked, ‘What sort of traffic jam is this?’ Then, ‘Does this happen every day?’
She responded to both my questions with a terse, ‘I never come this way.’
As I wondered whether to keep the conversation going, Sahadeo changed the topic and said this was where smugglers paid toll tax. ‘A government checkpoint comes after crossing the river Gandak in Mehrauna,’ he said, ‘where vehicles carrying legal goods are checked. But in Noma, the tax is paid by smugglers. Oil, cattle and sugar are all trafficked via this route, and one has to pay to smuggle out or bring in every sack of sugar or head of cattle. The rates are quite high these days. This is the gateway to our state.’
He had begun to irritate me with his stories, so I asked him to keep quiet. There was no point in believing what he said.