On page 87 of his new novel, After Messiah, Aakar Patel writes a short essay on how the office of the leader of the republic, whom he only names Big Man, has changed dramatically since he first took over. The office now dominates the government; ministers have no decision-making power and ministries focus on “delivering the finest possible event or ceremony the Big Man could preside over”. Patel’s book may begin after the Big Man is gone, but the debris of his destruction is everywhere.
The author describes the charismatic leader’s government as not very different from a kingdom and his blistering critique of the new avatar of the republic sums up the present moment perfectly: regular raids on dissenters and opposition; a servile media; a ruler speaking of himself in the third person; social media accounts of elected representatives run only by the PMO (the action unfolds in the PMO though the author steers clear of the title Prime Minister); a sidelined old guard; a right hand man who does the Big Man’s dirty work; key government data that is not released or even gathered; the ignoring of joblessness and other bad news; and the punishments for those who make the mistake of sharing any such worrying news.
After tackling the past and the present in his previous books, Patel has moved to the future. After Messiah is a satirical, fictional take on our future. The most powerful parts of this novel though, are the ones that you and I wish were fiction but know otherwise. Like the essay that begins on page 87.
This is Patel’s fourth book in four years – 2020’s Our Hindu Rashtra was a look at the history of our majoritarian state and how we accelerated to the present-day Hindutva. His second, 2021’s The Price of The Modi Years, was a data and fact driven report card of the Narendra Modi government. The Anarchist Cookbook in 2022 gave readers the ingredients and the recipe to “bake your own campaign for change”. And now After Messiah is a work of fiction that feels very real.
In Patel’s latest, a dramatic physical fight between politicians may remind you of televised battles in parliament and how democracy is increasingly a farce. There’s resort politics and philosophical musings on whether the state can be anything other than violent and how humane leaders should tackle dissent. No real novel of our times can be complete without preventive detention, but this law plays a supporting role to the Land Acquisition Act. Plus there’s music and humour because this is Patel after all.
Is the author trying to tell us that any political option is better? Or is he saying the system won’t let anyone do better? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
For a long time now I’ve said that political satirists have the unenviable task of competing with the everyday outrageous reality of India. Patel sets himself up for this impossible task and succeeds. He does this by not competing with reality, instead he imagines a future scenario and sets it in present-day reality.
Patel was always a writer. Now, in addition to fighting multiple battles against the state machinery, he is paying the price of the Modi years by turning into a compulsive sutradhaar, unable to take his eyes off a nation on a rampage. With every new work, the author uses a different format, maybe because he wants to try everything to get through to you or maybe because he finds it boring to not keep reinventing himself.
And yes, his next work is a screenplay.
This article was originally published on Priya Ramani’s Substack.