Novel of the week

An Obedient Father

Akhil Sharma <em> Faber, 282pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571206735

This story is about a crook, a thief, his daughter and . . . her lover, but only if one were being perverse. It is also about the all-pervasiveness of bribery and corruption in a third-world country, where poverty is everywhere, everything has a price, and you even have to bribe a waiter to get a drink at a party. Ram Karan is a corrupt assistant education officer - a bribe collector - in Delhi's corrupt education system under the corrupt Mr Gupta. Karan's life is narrated in the first person, except for two chapters told by his elder daughter, Anita, who lives with him, and the final section, which describes the thoughts of his younger daughter, Kusum, while on a visit from America six years after his death.

The first chapter of this debut novel is hard work. The tediousness of the physical education department where Karan works, the money extorted from a school head to fund Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party, the strangeness of some of the language - each plays a part. But mainly, it is the unrelieved unattractiveness of Karan, who is lazy, resentful, incompetent, greedy, self-pitying to the point of tearfulness, sycophantic, and so fat that his shirts stretch obscenely over his stomach.

Karan is even more corrupt than he initially appears. At the end of chapter one, he suddenly rubs his erection against the back of his eight-year-old granddaughter, Asha. "I wasn't doing anything wrong. I was not naked. Asha didn't know what I was doing," is Karan's justification to himself, and you realise that his creepy seduction with gifts and kisses ("I love you . . . You're my little sun-ripened mango") mirrors his earlier seduction of Anita. I was repelled but, from that moment, riveted.

This is as far as it gets, because Anita catches him in the act, but while Asha might not know what is going on, Anita does. It started with her when she was 12. So she exacts a slow revenge on her now obedient father, who is terrified that she might tell. She demands more housekeeping money. She gets it. She steals from Karan's purse. He says nothing. She locks him in his room. He accepts it. She takes him to visit the neighbours, his colleagues, their relations, and tells them that he raped her when she was a child. There is a lot of talk, but nothing happens; some of Karan's family do not believe her. Anita considers reporting him. "The police will do nothing without money," rejoins Karan. In the end, she decides she has to kill him, throwing away his pills and feeding him cholesterol-laden foods to bring on another heart attack.

Interwoven with what is happening at home are the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the subsequent elections. Karan and Gupta swap sides to support the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Gupta runs as a BJP candidate for parliament in Delhi. They begin diverting the Congress bribe money to the BJP. Gupta's son Ajay disappears, as does Mr Bajwa, Gupta's former bribe collector in the department. It seems they have started a little extortion racket of their own, raising money for the BJP, then pocketing it. Ajay's throat is cut, Bajwa is presumed dead. The BJP withdraws its sponsorship of Gupta when Karan, in fear for his own life, steals the money that is left and bribes both the Congress and the BJP not to kill or punish him. Congress forms a coalition government. Gupta is kidnapped, then he, too, is murdered.

While An Obedient Father is full of horrors, there is also a certain black humour. When Karan decides to betray Gupta, he reflects: "Here was a man who could not scare people away from killing his son. How was he going to win an election?"

But I worried that I could simply be chortling at the strange ways of a third-world country. As Kusum says to her American husband who laughed at her and Anita arguing over their dead mother's saris (saris that she doesn't need, because she wears western dress in America): "What's a joke there, in your world - that's the only reality in this world. It's the only reality one can think about, that one can imagine."

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?