Hon’ble Minister Jagubhai
Pravinsinh Chavda, Mira Desai (tr.)
There is a certain gravitas in the politician’s rags-to-riches account everywhere, but particularly so in India, where we’re diehard fans of the peer-reviewed community life. A leader of men is supposed to inspire confidence in voters. When you look at a person’s life and realise that he or she has overcome adversity, it’s easier to believe that such an individual will be prepared for most eventualities. We want to be surrounded by leaders like these, who will make the most of whatever life throws at them.
Unfortunately, this is also why listening to politicians’ life stories is often soul-crushingly boring. Over time, gravitas desiccates into pomposity. Anecdotes that seemed earnest years ago begin to sound rehearsed as you (and the storytellers) grow older. Pravinsinh Chavda’s novel Hon’ble Minister Jagubhai is an attempt at pricking political pretensions like these. Translated from the Gujarati by Mira Desai, its principal strengths are its unique tone — satirical but in an odd, plaintive way — and the deft characterisation of its protagonist, the titular Jagubhai, who is utterly believable as a farmer, a film extra and finally, a rookie politician looking to cash in.
For a novel rooted in realism, Chavda manages to slip in rather stark symbolism every now and then. Jagubhai, ever since his name has been brought up as a ministerial candidate, has been living in a bungalow where he receives guests, holds court and makes big, expansive plans for the future. It just so happens that the bungalow is named Swapnalok, quite literally the land of dreams. There is a subtle shift in Jagubhai’s tone and demeanour from the moment that he steps foot inside Swapnalok. When Rajshekhar, his opportunistic nephew, asks Jagubhai if there’s anything new and noteworthy in the papers, the latter replies, “Potatoes can cure cancer, they say. God knows what the truth is.” This is precisely the kind of unverifiable, soothsaying doublespeak that politicians exploit. It’s not a coincidence that Jagubhai has remembered this out of everything in the newspaper; he is learning the tricks of the trade.
Further confirmation of the same arrives in the form of Jyuthika, a journalist who writes a detailed profile of Jagubhai. While the story isn’t exactly damaging, it does reveal much more of the man than the 200-word “farmer becomes MLA” stories that have been written about him so far. When Jyuthika admits that she has a biography of Jagubhai in mind, he is shrewd enough to realise the potential benefits of such an enterprise, even if it means revealing a few less than flattering things about him. He even requests his nephew to supply her with uplifting nuggets about him.
“If there is an opportunity to add your opinion, do so. Also, your memory is sharper than mine, and in the subject under discussion, rather than the main character, the opinions of other people are more important and reliable, or should be reliable. (…) To simplify, Jyuthika is an eminent journalist, you can say she’s a writer. She wants to write a book on me. I’ve been trying to explain that there’s no point, that this isn’t worth taking up, but she refuses to listen to me. She’s insistent. I was driven away from all fronts, battered, and these English journalists find my life fascinating! I said OK — my life is public property!”
Translated from the Gujarati by Mira Desai, its principal strengths are its unique tone — satirical but in an odd, plaintive way — and the deft characterisation of its protagonist, the titular Jagubhai, who is utterly believable as a farmer, a film extra and finally, a rookie politician looking to cash in.
Two immediately recognisable traits of politicians are beautifully illustrated by the passage above. First, there is the unmistakeably false sense of humility, referred to as “humblebrag” on the Internet these days. Navjot Singh Sidhu, whose political career could not quite capture his flair for playing quality spin bowling, is an early master of this genre of public speaking. Second, there is the acute understanding of the victim complex (“I was driven away from all fronts…”) and its political leverage.
Jagubhai’s plans and aspirations get bigger and fancier. The number of people counting on his success increases exponentially. And yet, through all the political machinations, his insouciance manages to beguile the reader. We know that Jagubhai is as susceptible to deceit and insincerity as the next person. But we cannot quite place the man’s bursts of compassion or his unique brand of asceticism: like the shrewdest of politicians, Jagubhai’s motivations seem to be just out of reach for the common man.
This novel began life as Antim Adhyay, a short story that Chavda wrote. This edition of the novel includes that story as well: this is a daring move, for most writers do not like to reveal early drafts of their works. In a conversation between Chavda and translator Mira Desai, the former explained this: “Sometimes I wonder: could there be something like jealousy among literary forms? This has happened a number of times with me. You have set aside a subject for a novella, with the vague hope of working on it in the future. Then this mistress, the younger one, more agile, more swift, begins to weave a web using her subtle charms and before you know what is happening, your proposed novella comes out as a
Hon’ble Minister Jagubhai is a short and crisp novel about the nature of political power: elusive, all-consuming and uncompromising. Its distinctive brand of humour and moments of startling insight will keep you on your toes as a reader.