Rajat Chaudhuri’s The Butterfly Effect : A boldly rendered Asian dystopia

“Chaudhuri’s well-oiled plot transports the reader from the cinematic darkness of a dystopian Calcutta to small town England, from the jungles of Korea to the prison camps of Pyongyang,” writes Dr. Anupam Pachauri.

On a night tinged by the greenish glow of petromax lamps, Captain Old, a police hit-man is driving a rickety scooter through the barren wastes of an unnamed Asian city. He is out to meet a foreigner, Henry David, who has stumbled upon a secret which could explain the roots of a curious epidemic that has engulfed the continent. There are diseased people everywhere, genetically engineered fighters patrol the streets, and abandoned metro tunnels shelter refugees. Soon we can recognise the city as a post-apocalyptic Calcutta, now the capital of a slowly flooding, war-torn Asian Darkland.

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Thus begins the first of the mirrored narratives of The Butterfly Effect, where vivid storytelling dovetails with a playful structure, taking the reader on an exhilarating rollercoaster ride across decades and time zones.

How do we tell stories of multiple quests, utopias and dystopias, nested within a framework of imminent chaos? Surely there are different ways, but in this novel Chaudhuri echoes the French master Diderot by adopting a narrative technique of breaks, providing a kaleidoscopic rendering of quests and ideologies, where the journey is as important as the destination.    

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Soon in another sinuous strand, we are introduced to detective Kar, in present day Calcutta, who while obsessing about hair loss, is catapulted into a mystery that takes him to Seoul. He is looking for a bunch of Indian tourists who have vanished there.   

Each of these narratives, following the rules of a thriller, end with a cliffhanger as we are whisked away into new settings. On the other side, as the strands get picked up, the motivations of characters like the enigmatic cybercafé hostess Jiyoo Park or Henry David himself, begin to be revealed.

There is a stream of humour running through these pages, sometimes surfacing to make light of literature’s obsession with genres. So detective Kar, who is a stifled laugh at the hardboiled genre, while on a mission, gets diverted by the possibility of collecting gingko leaves for his alopecia.

Another engaging story about a hotshot Indian geneticist in a small English town, working on a secret project to end malnutrition, is artfully interrupted by a hilarious slanging match between anti and pro-environment characters. The humorous interludes frame the carefully-etched characters but this laughter, often black, seems to portend the self-annihilating evil that sits deep inside the human mind. Very soon, the geneticist would be overwhelmed by an avalanche of incidents.

A fourth account about love and heartbreak, swiftly moves into the realm of fantasy before washing over and mingling with all the other tales. The butterfly waits in between all these — danger lies masked by beauty.

Chaudhuri’s well-oiled plot transports the reader from the cinematic darkness of a dystopian Calcutta to small town England, from the jungles of Korea to the prison camps of Pyongyang and places further still till it ends where it begun. There is never a missed beat — each of the stories are told in distinctive voices with well calibrated pacing. The language is delicious and sophisticated:

“The darkness of the rain-soaked woods was of many dimensions. Here it was primeval, dense like the blackest dream. It wrapped around him like a blanket that would choke him off if he didn’t keep moving, following the scrunch of her boots on the small rocks. It was an unsettling, wave after wave of pitch-black harmony, coming at him from every side, sailing through his body as if he was transparent to black noise.”

The speculative imagination was already evident in the author’s previous work, Hotel Calcutta, but here with gene splicing as a plot device and in delineating his dystopia, he has embraced it completely. The Butterfly Effect stands out as a bold, ambitious novel which is opening up unexplored territory for a generation of engaged readers. If you plan to read one novel which not only entertains with its adventures but also imaginatively engages with important issues of our times, this should be it.     

The Butterfly Effect

Author : Rajat Chaudhuri

No of pages : 376 pages

Publisher : Olive Turtle-Niyogi Books

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Dr. Anupam Pachauri is a Commonwealth Fellow (Univ of Sussex) who currently teaches at a university in Delhi.

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