Aptly named after the official residence complex of the Prime Minister of India, Race Course Road begins with his assassination. What follows is a battle for succession, a long-drawn election season and a series of scandals that reveal a complex interplay of media and politics in contemporary India.
Advertised as the ‘ultimate insider’s political thriller’, Seema Goswami’s debut novel does full justice to the insider bit. Written with the quiet confidence of a perennial fly on the wall, the story begins with the assassination of the beloved patriarch of the nation and family, Birendra Pratap Singh. The void he leaves behind creates the perfect setting for a soap opera-esque trinity of tensions, tantrums and tears.
The lead characters include a dutiful son with anger issues, a playboy brother who schemes when not drunk, a step sister freshly returned replete with potentially explosive scandal packed in a designer handbag, a comatose widow, an opposition party leader desperate to cement his return to power, and one proverbial Shakuni mama. The other major players include news anchors that occupy the polar ends of a belligerency scale and a laundry list of politicians, bureaucrats and campaign managers.
The kicker here is figuring out the real-world counterparts of these fictional characters.
While our political reality might be depressing, it sure has all the elements of a good thriller. One of the accomplishments of the author is that she brings the reader so close to the history of Indian politics and media that it is, frankly, painfully disconcerting. She punctuates this constantly with wry observational humour that is quite refreshing, my favourite being the trademark Hermes belt worn by a prominent businessman. It is hard at this point to not recall the ubiquity of that giant ‘H’ holding back a bursting paunch. The ‘babu’ talk between the various secretaries and heads of agencies are reminiscent of Yes Minister and provide suitable amusement through the many meetings that take place.
It is hard to locate blame for stock characters and motivations, especially if it’s an insider’s account. Are our politicians truly different from their caricatures? An insider would know. But one would have hoped for more variation in the usual lot of sleaze and scumbaggery, and more originality in the grand scheme of evil even if it were a departure from the truth. There is a stale homogeneity in its depiction. The anonymous banks, exotic locations, slender tanned legs, iconic hotels, all seem to be lifted from an old Bond movie. There is also a certain temptation to skip the pages devoted to certain scandals simply by virtue of one being overly familiar with them.
This is not to say the author in incapable of injecting a dose of freshness to traditional settings. The scenes depicting a young Jayesh playing football with his father’s security detail because his father’s too busy—the loneliness of a child who is forced to play chess against himself—are striking, memorable and one would have simply hoped to see more of these. Political thrillers are a great opportunity to drive interest and engagement towards the field, especially for those that treat it as a quinquennial shooting star, seen once every five years and from a great distance. This book manages to achieve just that—opening up the barricaded and walled world of Lutyen’s Delhi to the reader.
Another feature to note is the generosity of character injected into the female protagonists of the book. They are endowed with a certain self-awareness that is both insightful and astute, and a pleasure to read. One of the key turning points in the book hinges around a principled stand taken by all of them, which is like a shot of optimism delivered straight to the heart of Indian society. While most of Goswami’s characters reflect the world of Indian politics, the women, through their motivations reflect why that world is so.
The author plays to her strength as she displays the cause-and-effect relationship between politics and media in India, revealing the tricks and gimmicks used to garner TRPs and insights about the selection and dynamics of panel debates.
The book is a worthy companion for long evenings. It is paced like a tightly edited news bulletin, refusing to let you touch the remote or look away for the fear of missing something important. Reading this book has been a heady rush of schadenfreude, perhaps a testament to how eerily close this book comes to real life and how well it has been packaged—the political parties going against each other, the plots hatched, newsrooms spinning yarns, the tempo of the elections. Schadenfreude, because at least in fiction the consequences are damning and because there is a sense of personal vindication in the misery doled out to this fictionalized lot.
If ‘the game was only just beginning’, then Seema Goswami is just getting started, and I can’t wait to read what happens next.