The Land of a Thousand Gandharvas

Drawing inspiration from George Orwell's 1984, Madhav Mathur's satirical novel 'Dvarca' sets characters from Hindu epics in a dystopian world, where a totalitarian government controls every move.

Dvarca, by Madhav Mathur, is a dystopian novel set in the 22nd-century fictional country of the same name, a country manifestly drawn from India. The story follows the life of a family and their struggles during their interactions with the regime. Let me put a spoiler here – this book appears to be the first part of a series. This was not evident to me at first; I discovered this after reading the entire book and reaching the end. Until then, I kept wondering how short the climax would be. And then came the realisation that the end is the beginning of something.

Madhav Mathur
Fingerprint Publishing, 2016

The key characters in the family are the husband (Gandharva), wife (Jyoti), two kids (Nakul and Mira) and their grandfather. Gandharva is a low-level bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance and Salvation and Jyoti works at the Dvarca mills. The characters are given traits based on the corresponding characters from ancient Hindu epics. It takes a little while before the reader figures out that there are numerous Gandharvas, Jyotis, Nakuls and Miras in the country of Dvarca and which ones are the key characters. It was confusing in the beginning but slowly made sense. Before I realised this, I was constantly trying to separate the multitude of Gandharava and Jyotis in my head (there are no surnames, in case you were wondering, instead the multiples are distinguished by their address tags).

The regime in the land of Dvarca follows the path of “Navmarg” and everything is regimented. Any deviation is considered a rebellion, an anti-national act, and dealt with accordingly. The regime ensures that people live under constant fear and therefore are obedient. Our family follows the rules and keeps their heads down. And the author does a commendable job of fleshing out the characters and context.

And then …. “one fateful night, a man happens to break routine….” This and the first chapter of the book are quite deceptive because they indicate that the book will be a fast read. However, it is nothing of the sort. The pace simply doesn’t pick up, except for a handful of moments sprinkled across the book. But these are too few to make it a page-turner. Perhaps this was my expectation from the blurb and the first chapter. Only while nearing the end of the book did the realisation dawn on me that this could be the beginning of a series. Keeping that in mind, the slow pace makes sense.  However, by then I was already quite disappointed.

Madhav Mathur. Credit: Facebook

The book appears to draw inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984 as well as Amish Tripathi’s Meluha series. Shovon Chowdhury, in his blurb to the book, mentions these two as reference points. The book also refers to present day right-wing ideologies and the film Demolition Man – although the latter may simply be me reading too much into it. There were times that while reading about the incidents mentioned in the book, my mind constantly found similarities to incidents we see in the news today, making me question whether we already live in a dystopian Dvarca. For instance, one of the main television programmes in Dvarca, ‘Hour of Honour’, focuses on enhancing patriotism and religious sentiments among the citizens. You could legitimately suggest that a number of Indian TV channels are already far ahead in this regard.

There are parts of the book which are really funny – especially the description of the entire marriage ceremony, imagining Kamasutra as lessons in group exercise. During the marriage ceremony, each groom is handed a flier, “How to show your new wife that you love her”. The flyer includes important points such as: “Hold her hand in private (palm-on-palm only, not beyond the wrist” and “Memorize and recite scripture for her”. There is also a magnificently bad pun on the individuals running the drones. They are, of course, called … wait for it … “Drone-Acharyas”. Interactions between Gandharva and various government officials and security guards are quite amusing too.

Dvarca, situated as it is between the Meluha books and 1984, is aiming big. The Meluha books, despite the clunky references to mythology which dragged down the pace of the second and third books, were fast paced. 1984, on the other hand, is famously one of the most engaging books ever written in the English language, sucking a reader into a world too easy to imagine, and too horrible to contemplate. To seriously aim to challenge these Goliaths, the next parts of the Dvarca series will have to address both pace and engagement. So far, it whets the appetite, but it needs to move faster to hold a reader’s attention.

Apoorv Vij works on certification of green buildings and is based out of Delhi.

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