Review of Akash Verma’s You Never Know

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Mussoorie, Lal Tibba where You Never Know begins and ends. 

Humanist psychologists like Carl Rogers, Rollo May and Abraham Maslow had suggested long ago: we are all searching for happiness. Even thrillers mimetically demand happiness and murderers murder to become happy; only were happiness so easy to come by:

Ask the married man, I [Anuradha, the single woman who seduces and is seduced by her boss, Dhruv] say, why should I be guilty about everything all the time?… I need things to happen for me, happiness to happen for me…I want only good things to happen for me now…(75)

This need to feel good in the here and the now is the problem with quick-fix efforts at self-actualisation. As Martin Seligman has been repeating, following the great thinkers within the major religious traditions of the world, authentic happiness cannot happen overnight through sarx mediated gratification or as is to be found in this thriller, through violence cascading to murder. Adultery and radical violence have not been known to bring peace to anyone ever. As the characters’ inner lives shatter because of alienation from family and their immediate surroundings, they become infantile in their efforts at returning to a pre-Lapsarian world of good and evil. As an aside, it is immature to fixate on guilt, shame and sin in a world where Nietzsche has shown that good and evil are not written in stone (Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future): 

I [Dhruv] maintain a delicate balance between the two [Dhruv’s lover and his wife], making sure their paths never cross. Leading a two-faced life is thrilling but comes with a deluge of guilt. The guilt wants to pull you away from the feverish ardour of your exciting other life, back to the comfort of your original one, the peaceful one. The heart retaliates because it wants to indulge in this sinful cocktail, this new obsession. (128)

Dhruv being older than Anuradha and being married can vaguely understand within the limited moral economy of this book that an affair is just that, it is only an affair. It is an obsession, and like all obsessions, it is temporary and all the headier because it is tinged with sin. You Never Know repeatedly stresses the sinfulness of the dasein. One gets the impression that Akash Verma’s orientation is more tinged with Kantian categorical imperatives of sin vis-à-vis a state of Blakean Innocence. Verma’s apparently amoral India is in fact too moral. It cannot accept that life is only Love Sex & Dhokha. There seems to be an implicit need for endings/closures in this book which has one defect: all the characters in this book end their sentences with ‘no’. For examples, “I [Anuradha] am stupid, no?” (86); “Arrey, like those Flipkart, Wlipkart, no?” (105) and so on. The two points which prevent Verma from being a great writer yet are his insistence on ending/closing the novel, without being able to end the book with only a sense of an ending and his monoglossic characters who speak like one another. 

You Never Know is not Anna Karenina. Adultery has produced some of the greatest works in literature: Doctor Zhivago, Madame Bovary, and the list goes on. You Never Know is just a spoof compared to these works but will strike a chord with millions of Indians whose regular fare consists of Chetan Bhagat’s books. With the #MeTooIndia controversy, workplace affairs become all the more legally slippery, and it is within this historical context that we must assess You Never Know.

 

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Verma shows the emptiness that is an affair. According to this compelling book, adultery is destructive of one’s esse.

 

One of the high points of the novel is when Verma is able to capture in words the pervasive rot in India’s fabric when Anuradha’s boyfriend Sid sets a-thinking, an action he rarely indulges in:

Everyone would know what Sid Mathur is capable of. I have to meet Hemant Bhaiya today, an MLA in the current state government [Uttarakhand in this case], the guy with big bucks and useful contacts. He likes me because I am intelligent and smart, and guys with such qualities are hard to find…I helped him pull of two big land deals in Dehradun and Almora. People from his coterie could not have handled it, for they would have fumbled in front of senior bureaucrats during land dealings and big industrialists who owned that area. It required someone who was efficient enough to abide by their instructions in the office and understand matters of the heart when they were away from their chairs. (103)

You Never Know’s moral strength comes from its deliberate conflation of sarx with pneuma. “Matters of the heart” are here matters of the flesh and indeed India’s zeitgeist is that powerful men (sic) sitting insulated from the masses are slowly selling off India’s environmental resources and pushing India to an ecological disaster which cannot be even predicted by the most nuanced mathematical models that we have now. The rot has set in and as Verma points out; corrupt bureaucrats who wear masks of affable empathy have set off the roulette of systematic sin in our country. It is to Verma’s credit that he has been able to see the truth about India’s redundant Civil Services and our VIP culture. No wonder this book is a bestseller because we ordinary mortals are in awe of the men who travel with policemen who are often forced to do their laundry.  The historicity of the novel is as accurate as its cartographical data; both are accurate.

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This review will be incomplete without providing a raison d’être for engaging with LSD noir. Cultural studies’ scholars have always been bothered by their preoccupation with quick-reads which are generally flat and structurally close-ended. Dominic Strinati in his An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (2004) has this to say of cultural artefacts like You Never Know:

…theories of mass society and mass culture usually rely upon a clear division between the past and the present. The division is normally taken to refer to a process of social change from a ‘better’ or preferable past to a degenerating and uninviting present and future. The pre-mass society is viewed as a communal and organic whole in which people accept and abide by a shared and agreed-upon set of values which effectively regulate their integration into the community, and which recognise hierarchy and difference. There is a place for art, the culture of elites, and a place for a genuinely popular folk culture which arises from the grass roots, is self-created and autonomous, and directly reflects the lives and experiences of the people. This authentically popular folk culture can never aspire to be art, but its distinctiveness is accepted and respected. With industrialisation and urbanisation this situation changes. Community and morality break down, and individuals become isolated, alienated and anomic, caught up in increasingly financial and contractual social relationships. They are absorbed into an increasingly anonymous mass, manipulated by their only source of a surrogate community and morality, the mass media. In this society, mass culture suppresses folk culture and undermines the integrity of art. (Strinati 9)

It is within this “anomic” and “increasingly anonymous mass” that we have Dhruv and Anuradha “playing games like children, with no inhibitions” (52). At the end of the book, we find that ‘community and morality break down’ leading to “infinite guilt” (212) resulting in the exact opposite of what Anuradha had wanted at the beginning of the novel. Both Dhruv and Anuradha had sought to overcome anomie; they are both destroyed by their encounters with their selves qua pasts. Their regressions to the state of being child-like, albeit Freudian eroticised uninhibited children stoking the fires of lust lead to the annihilation of their beings. Ironically they seek authenticity by being false to each other and themselves and therefore lack, what Paul Tillich calls ‘the courage to be’. The novel ends with blackmail and existential unhappiness. Instead of love and replenishment with which this review began, we find our characters’ lives destroyed by commodity fetish.

If you want to know the real India, pick this book up. You will not be disappointed.

 

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Wallowing in the senses, we lack The Courage to Be