Balaji Venkateswaran is not a politician. He knows nothing about the personal lives of our political personalities, nor has he ever voted in his life.
What he can do quite well though is sniff out material for a good story. Rage, his debut novel, may be proof of that.
I have, like most others, thought of political careers as tedious. There's money to be made, of course, but not everyone wants to wade through the all-encompassing murkiness to get to it. For Venkateswaran, however, it is precisely this moral ambiguity surrounding the political milieu that generates drama. His is a novel about politicians. They crowd its pages and creep up on its protagonists. They plan, connive and manipulate.
And at the centre of it all stands his powerful protagonist, Lakshmi.
Rage documents her life through the many roles she is compelled to play -- from abandoned child to professional dancer, politician-in-training to megalomaniac. I ask Venkateswaran if she has been modelled on any actual political figure. "I began this as an attempt to understand the public actions of our politicians," he replies. "I started writing in the fabulist style, as a sort of political and social parable. At the same time, my characters were tugging at me to ground them in reality. I had to select a milieu for the story and, even though I've hardly lived in Tamil Nadu, I felt I knew it better."
What makes Lakshmi's story more interesting are the smaller tales weaving in and out of her own. There's the story of her mother, banned from home after falling for a former actor. There's her teacher, Sister Cecilia, and her marionettes inspired by characters of the sixteenth-century Italian commedia dell'arte. There is Lakshmi's own adolescent affair, a secret that returns to haunt her years later. And there is the passive narrator, a former friend who is now a journalist, forced to watch her life unfold from a distance, powerless to change its course.
"The novel began as an attempt to understand why politicians are the way they are," says Venkateswaran, "but it quickly became more of an exploration of Lakshmi's inner and personal life, with politics being a device to explore the character." Politics is only part of the narrative, he adds. "It is more about a woman's lifelong search for permanence in human relationships."
Back to the plot. Lakshmi is transformed after meeting with Mutthu, an ageing superstar who wants to be a politician. Wooed into becoming his mistress, she is suddenly the centre of a new world.
To his credit, given the plot's many twists and turns, Venkateswaran manages it all like a master, at times resembling one of his characters - a puppeteer employed by Lakshmi to veil social issues at electoral rallies. When it all starts to crumble, Lakshmi is left with nothing but the old, familiar rage and her inability to forgive. "The novel is also an attempt to show that the line separating perpetrator from victim often blurs," Venkateswaran explains. "Lakshmi is, after all, as much a victim (of her demons) as are the others who face the consequences of her actions."
The writing is taut and, even though he sometimes slides into cliché (a cardboard cut-out of Lakshmi falling onto a slum and killing people), Venkateswaran usually manages to rescue himself almost immediately with a bit of verbal dexterity (Lakshmi's visit to the slum leading to the accidental death of a boy). Apart from his ability to simply carry a tale forward, the author also uses his narrative as a tool to make a number of comments - be it on the tricky relationship between society and the people that rule it or an analysis of how the caste system shapes impressions.
Given his obvious talent as a writer, I find it strange that Rage has, by and large, been ignored by the media. Venkateswaran believes it could be any number of things to blame - "the subject matter, or perhaps people are wary of misinterpreting its intent." Echoing what a number of first-time authors increasingly feel, he also believes it is hard to get attention unless there is a story surrounding the book, a huge advance involved, or someone pushing it diligently.
Born in Chennai 37 years ago, Venkateswaran grew up in other parts of India, particularly Pune and Mumbai. He left for America to pursue a master's degree in computer engineering and is a software engineer by training and profession. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and two children. And no, Rage isn't his first attempt at writing. He has done short stories and book reviews in the past, some of which have appeared in publications such as India West, Indian Review of Books and Weber Studies. "I'm a writer by temperament," he tells me. And I believe him.
We discuss a few more things, such as his interest in politics ("I'm more interested in understanding how power dynamics play out in the world"), why he retained part of the dialogue in Tamil ("It is impossible to capture faithfully in English the nuances of the languages these characters use, and their social and political connotations"), the possibility of Rage being published in the West ("My agent is working on it") and his interest in dancing ("I spent a fair amount of time learning about Bharata Natyam in order to write the novel"). He is now hard at work on his next novel, set in India and the US.
Ultimately, whether or not one examines Rage in the light of South Indian politics is irrelevant. A good book is, after all, a good book. It is just the ghostly presence of politicians who sound familiar that makes this a little bit better.