Book Review: Above Average by Amitabha Bagchi

April 09, 2007
Aaman Lamba

The Indian English publishing industry has been seeing a explosion of new authors of late. This might be considered the third generation, after the early post-Independence authors like M G Vassanji, Ved Mehta, and R K Narayan, and then the West-savvy luminaries like Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, et al. The new lot is not as promising as yet, and there are very few that have made a mark for themselves. While many may turn out to be one-hit wonders, their efforts benefit the industry in general and make it more appealing for those that follow.

Above Average by Amitabha Bagchi is a stand-out book from the current crop for various reasons. Structurally, it dispenses with the linear plot, adopting instead an array of interlocking circles, moving the action in both space and time from 1980s New Delhi to 21st century Baltimore and back again. Thematically, it is a coming-of-age story, a striving-for-progress post-colonial story, a there-and-back-again voyage of self-discovery, and also a tale of unrequited love, of effort without results. The narrator has no discernible hamartia, or perhaps just that he is detached from his surroundings, his friends, and his actions. He is not a tragic hero, but there are tragic heroes in the tale - there are those who inhabit a 'Hindi-movie world', 'full of stories of violence and greed and lifelong grudges'. There are characters who repay kindness with ingratitude, and there are those who find it hard to let go, even when letting go is the only thing that makes sense.

The narrator, Arindam Chatterjee, or Rindu as he becomes in IIT, is a Delhi boy, East Delhi to be precise, and his experiences with a variety of people are a chronicle of life in urban India, an India on the cusp of transformation, much like his own life. As the tale progresses, we discover that he will become a research scholar in the United States, make and lose friends, and fathom to some degree the instability inherent in his weltanschauung. Grand and terrible things don't really happen to him, his crises are common to those in their late teens, and the quotidian events of his life are not very different from any other young man. This makes him Everyman in some ways, representing a generation, one that found their homeland and society lacking in many respects.

His perspective on life is shaped by two overlapping realms - that of his Society where he has grown up, and of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, which exposes him to people from other social backgrounds. He doesn't come to terms with the two worlds until he has graduated from both, and thus the novel is also a tale of temps perdu, where realization is not in the moment, but in the reflection.

The supporting characters are a rich cast of spiteful dysfunctional young people. Strangely, most are spiteful through striving and either failing or recognizing their limitations. This is a dystopian novel in that sense, with even vignettes of hope dashed from the drinker's cup. Social limitations mingle with personal failings to hold back progress, from Rocksurd, who aspires to be a drummer, and bears much spite because he doesn't have what it takes, to Kanitkar, who is a smart professor willing to hold back the best students, perhaps because of his own inability to reach greatness.

Like in the fairy tale genre, all quests in the novel cause great suffering, and are futile. A desire to be 'above average' defines it's own limits, and even those with vaunting ambition reach only so far before their 'aspiration fills whatever space it occupies'. This might almost be a cautionary tale of Indian progress, with it's failed techno-entrepreneurs, rootless desis in the diaspora, and a regression to the mean.

It's still a good read, and recommended highly.

Aaman Lamba is the Publisher of, a Blogcritics network site. He also blogs, more infrequently nowadays, at Audit Trails Of Self
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April 9, 2007
08:47 AM

...failed techno-entrepreneurs, rootless desis in the diaspora, and a regression to the mean.

Aaman, can spell exactly what you mean, here :) and I couldn't agree more. Same is happening in Indian moviescape.

Also read an interesting article yesterday, how the Indian movie industry, like any other service industry is also confused and lost. Take a patch from here and there and make candy gloss movie, the flag bearer being the Karan Johar, with some dance numbers shot in Manhattan and NDTV devoting long hours to cover that.

"We are all confused. Most of the mainstream films are urban-oriented and usually based on the themes of the middle class. All the filmmakers, including me, are confused. No one knows which way to go... filmmaking has become very expensive. It is four-five times more expensive than say 10-15 years ago. It is difficult to hold on to one's convictions. Hindi cinema makers do not have any conviction. Real India is missing in films."

April 9, 2007
11:11 AM

Aaman, Amitabha's book has been on my side table for a bit and I can't wait to get to it while I finish some other stuff first.

But I have read the first chapter and I wanted to ask you a related question. Do you think the book is insider-IIT or has specific references to things in Delhi that might be appreciated by the rest?

April 9, 2007
11:19 AM

I'm not from IIT or from Delhi, but appreciated it nevertheless. It rises above the insider joke to draw you into the milieu, as good books should.

April 10, 2007
05:36 AM

I think writers dream about having critics bring this level of engagement to their work. At least this writer does. Thanks Aaman, great work. Like many other people I was beginning to whine to my friends about lazy reviewing, this has shut me up once and for all.

July 24, 2008
08:32 AM

I have also read this book and liked it a lot. The main reason why i picked this book is coz i saw this book at and it was listed among the 5 best books for the award.

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