Book Review: Hacks and Headlines- Rashme Sehgal's First Novel

February 01, 2007

Rashme Sehgal's first novel is not just a heady mixture of political and sexual power games, it is an insider's view of the way the fourth estate operates in India, ideally placed in New Delhi where all the power broking goes on behind closed doors. It shows that the Indian media owners are complicit in these corrupt machinations. Rashme Sehgal is a successful journalist who worked at several major Delhi based newspapers and, for two decades, she has had a ringside seat at the arenas of events she describes.

The novel begins chillingly with the public execution of an upper class girl, Paro, and of her lower caste lover Jano by their relatives, with the witnessing village remaining complicity silent. There is no intricate social explanation of this gruesome event: the indifferent witnessing of the entire village is shown to be ordinary. The description of these murders is almost banal, the sentences are staccato and short, as if the music had suddenly stopped. This however is a deliberate device and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

The news of these brutal murders is routinely reported by Dalip Jha, a veteran Delhi-based reporter for a Calcutta paper. Media baron Vikram Aggarwal who owns the rival The Indian Sentinel and whose family's financial dealings are under investigation uses this as an opportunity to hijack the story and ultimately engineer the downfall of the coalition government, providing a pretext to install his own uncle as the new prime minister. However the premise that these media barons can overturn a unstable coalition government is moot

There is a veritable cavalcade of characters: a number of politicians including a Prime Minister, a Chief Minister of U.P., their kleptocrat lackeys, a large gaggle of journalists (hacks) that includes a fine portrait of rapacious reporter Raveena Bedi, all of them driven by an insatiable desire to further their career by any means; Kiplingesque Gulabo Pathan, a Mafia god father stranded in his old Delhi fastness, much diminished by age and illness; Ram Bharose, his duplicitous acolyte, a hired assassin ; Attar Singh a small-time money lender who gets caught in the web, various family members and minor characters with the ultimate flotsam represented by office peons and finally by the villagers themselves.

There is a moral vacuum enveloping almost all the characters. Cynicism and pervasive corruption dictates the conduct of almost all of them. There is an unanswerable moral argument for the reinstatement of public and private morality raging unspoken between the lines.

There is a much larger novel almost echoing A Suitable Boy in tone and mood, which has been sadly abandoned in favour of a much shorter fictional précis. It is a pity that often a fine novel like Hacks and Headlines has to bear the burden of such high expectations placed on it since the Pulitzer Prize Winner work by Jhumpa Lahiri and the Booker Prize won by Arundhati Roy for her first novel. It is also significant that a substantial number of new young writers based in India are publishing promising work. It is a challenging gauntlet for Rashme Sehgal to run.

An earlier pre-publication review went on to allege that "this novel seldom rises above the hack writing which it condemns, and the deadpan realism never quite takes off." This is an unfounded criticism. This is similar to accusing that A Catcher in the Rye fails to rise above an adolescent monotone. The critic fails to see how clever the stylistic device is in using often the exhausted phraseology of hack writing. Hence phrases like, "radiant with energy"; "her provocative smile"; "eyes shone with a rare intensity" proliferate with a deliberate precision. Media demotic suits the theme of the novel well.

Rashme Sehgal is right in deliberately choosing to use a succession of "trite" idioms to describe a talentless mediocre bunch of kleptocrats, and an accompanying culture of two track morals (public euphemisms of declarations of honour and honesty and private corruption) that goes from the top to the very roots of public and private conduct. Demonstrably, the fear that deliberate triteness might undermine the whole novel turns out to be unfounded.

Rashme Sehgal's prose is marvellously crisp and moves at a lithe and efficient pace, in the process illuminating the fine details. It is astonishing to realise how each character gets a cursorily bare physiognomic inspection/description, and yet the few deft words engrave each of them vividly.

Here are a few deft portraits drawn no doubt from real life: There is concupiscent Dalip Jha, the veteran reporter unctuously seeking to "mount" (a surprisingly archaic word) his younger female colleagues where ever he can find such solace. He is a lovable, ultimately vulnerable philanderer who is trying to find sex in a setting of peaceful domesticity. When he is discovered by his wife Seema in his new found sexual partner Kiki's flat, the mood is any thing but erotic, with Dalip deep in reading the daily newspapers in a moment of post-coital domesticity.

There is petulant Seema, Dalip's third wife who takes Dalip on a white knuckle ride by making false accusations against him and his family of demanding a dowry (which is illegal), in an electrifying episode. On a grander scale Leelawati, Chief Minister of an Indian state with her orchestrated entourage deserves a fictional Bollywood Oscar. She is meticulously described as a gross but exact thespian caricature on an epic feeding and self grooming frenzy for status and power and money.

Another dominating character adding a demonic dimension to the story is Kala Muthu. He is a self assured and thrusting young buck from Chennai. He weaves his way through the Delhi elite and proves himself to be an adept blackmailer whose sole ruthless ambition is furthering his career with a bold prowess in bed and knowing when to strike.

A memorably smoky New Delhi is the magical backdrop to this mini saga, with its salubrious villas shrouded in an explosion of bougainvilleas; the description alludes to the borderland between the old parts of Delhi separated by a Mughal gate where stall keepers hold their posts right through day and night even during bone chilling winters. This provides a meeting ground for night workers, money lenders, assassins for hire, informers, corporate spies, impecunious office workers and young reporters on night watch.

The front cover predictably shows a stack of newspapers with the words "a novel" quirkily turned upside down disrupting an otherwise acceptable design. The back page blurb thoughtlessly gives away the final outcome of the novel, if not the gory event that precedes it. Although the book's title is accurate in affirming the central role that hacks and headlines occupy in the novel, a better title, less precise but more evocative could have been found. One assumes that the editors of Indian publishing houses do not go for the traditional handholding and nurturing of their authors to alleviate their self doubt and sinking morale.

One is left yearning to know how some of the characters got on: Dalip Jha and Seema and their tempestuous marriage; Raveena with her insatiable appetite for power and sex; Rajan's wife Arati, a narcissistic socialite and Rajan, a Chanakya-like character closest to Vikram Aggarwal; the media Mughal himself always sunk in a reverie; Ajay Singh, the idealistic and talented Hindi journalist who sacrifices his career on a matter of principle; predatory Kalu Mutu, the ruthless self promoter, and sundry characters.

One hopes there is a powerful sequel with a redemptive message for the corrupt soul of Indian body politic.

Started his career as a journalist in New Delhi in 1963 and travelled to the UK in 1964 by road as a hitchhiker. Turned away from writing to business and had a succesful career till 1996.
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Book Review: Hacks and Headlines- Rashme Sehgal's First Novel


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February 1, 2007
02:48 PM


first a warm welcome:)

even from this distance i think i recognised 'dalip jha' and perhaps one other character;)

the books looks like a good read

don't know why but some of the description reminded me of an old movie new delhi times i think it was called with perhaps naseeruddin shah, dipti agnihotri and marc zubair

February 2, 2007
01:32 AM

Hi Kini - I hadn't heard of Rashme Sehgal before but I'll definitely keep an eye out for her book now. That was a comprehensive review although I disagree, sight unseen :), with your hope for a sequel of redemption. Novels about redemption, especially debut efforts, tend to be long drawn out and ultimately yawn-worthy messes: this sounds like anything but.

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