The Great Indian Burlesque of politics and elections (Book Review)

Title: The Pillow Talk Movies; Author: Shashi Warrier; Publisher: Westland; Pages: 272; Price: Rs 295

If Kundan Shah’s cult satire “Jaane Bi Do Yaaron” was updated but transformed into a book, it could largely be like this one.

Satire’s most important function is to expose reality, no matter how unpalatable, and it is most effective when its inspiration in the world around us is clearly evident. What could be a better subject than our politics, and its electoral system, which is touted as the shining feature of our democracy, though we know how polls are fought and won, with factors other than universal adult franchise playing a major role.

It is this promising, but under-utilised field that Shashi Warrier, whose earlier writings include a string of thrillers and others dealing with issues like paedophilia and human trafficking, the Kashmir conflict, and terrorism, steps into for his latest book.

He proves to be a deft hand at the genre – creating a remarkable depiction of the confused, chaotic burlesque that is Indian electoral politics with its surreptitious but strong links to big business and big crime. But a few real-life inspirations that Warrier cites including then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s defence on missing documents in a scam, and a Left leader’s cool espousal of murder as a political tool, show reality can be more bizarre than any gifted but subversive imagination.

It is however the first case he recounts that takes the cake. It was a ritual trial in Kerala, during the early 20th century, of a woman, who took her much-older husband at his word, when he brought a prostitute home, and suggested she become one too. Doing so secretly but successfully, she soon had many clients, including her own husband, who eventually unmasked her. She accepted the charges but sought her clients face the same penalty of excommunication. Her request being accepted, she proceeded to identify them, which included many of the high and mighty, with infallible evidence. When she got to over 60, the Maharaja of Kochi, as the story goes, stopped the trial “for fear that she might name him as well among her clientele” and “many careers came to an abrupt and premature end”.

It is these strands and many others from contemporary politics, crime, business and media, and a unique brand of “track-2 diplomacy” that Warrier skillfully welds into a compelling, comical but ultimately uncomfortable story.

The premise is simple – elections is approaching and the “Old Family Party”, which is in power at the head of an unwieldy, venal coalition, headed by a Prime Minister, for whom saying “yes” is a reflex action in all situations, doesn’t fancy its chances, specially with the Party President in America for medical treatment and all hopes riding on her enthusiastic but naive son, or the “Future Leader of the Country”.

A meeting of leaders of prominent coalition partners, called by the OFP’s hatchet man, after the initial tall talk, conclude their chances are bleak and decide on a number of initiatives they can launch before elections are announced and “skim off the top of them for a few months”. But soon complications arise.

A senior, octogenarian MP, who secured his future by amassing a hoard of evidence of wrongdoings, is going insane and if the news gets out, it could means curtains for the rulers.

The resulting brouhaha draws in this MP’s wheeler-dealer son, who has vague ambitions of becoming President, a suave deep-cover Pakistani spy who doesn’t want to go back home, a smoothly hairless but utterly ruthless Mumbai underworld don, a woman assassin influenced by the Bhagavad Gita, a dud but loyal Intelligence Bureau chief forced to employ his wife’s relatives, and a businessman and a businesswoman running the capital’s leading bordellos, where politicians also come to draw up strategy, which is recorded along with their other exploits.

Then, there is an abrasive, high-volume TV host, a principled US-returned professor who hopes to cleanse the country’s politics (to the despair of all established parties, who are unable to suborn, co-opt or blackmail him), ambitious prostitutes, inept detectives and a suitably eccentric supporting cast.

Packed with cynical swipes at almost the entire establishment, it is a story that despite its grim themes of corruption, blackmail and murder, will leave you chuckling uncontrollably till you realise how close to reality it can be. That will stop the laughter.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at



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