Nobody Does the Right Thing by Amitava Kumar
In Nobody Does the Right Thing, a quick, breezy novel-sub-novella from Vassar English professor Amitava Kumar, readers are taken through an immense, continuous, and oftentimes painfully ongoing comedy of errors. Well, sort of. Actually, I’ve reread Nobody Does the Right Thing twice now, and still am finding myself thoroughly unable to grasp just exactly what Kumar, in so many ways, is trying to sputter out here, with this particular story and these particular people.
As with most epic tales of woe, lust, and loss, the premise sounds enticingly delicious (and perhaps even just a bit decadent) on paper, but what ends up being carried out on the actual pieces of paper betwixt the book’s thin spine falls disappointingly flat, boasting few true instances of thick, meaty substance. It’s a real shame, too; stories that encompass the elements of murder, sex, infidelity, and the press don’t usually sport the problem of being uninteresting, but somehow, Nobody Does the Right Thing manages to hit all the wrong notes when the correct ones were so near to the fingertips of the player.
Ostensibly, this story, set in Bombay, circa the American-Iraq war and George W. Bush’s rein of boob-ish terror, is about a poet who is brutally murdered by her lover, a married politician situated highly within the realm of India’s parliament. Binod, the book’s protagonist, is a Bombay journalist charged with covering the story, who then winds up turning it into a screenplay for the Bollywood film machine at the behest of an eccentric and influential person of power. Of course, nothing’s ever as simple as “he wrote the screenplay, and received a fortune and an Indian Oscar for it.” Complicating matters further here is the looming and rather alarming presence of Rabinder, Binod’s cousin whose character embodies the variety of ne’er do well, devil may care, and many other cheeky rebel cliques. (To give you a better understanding of just how far outside the laws of the land this demagogue operates on, he’s sitting contentedly in a jail cell when we first make his stellar acquaintance.)
Sounds intriguing enough, right? Given this tall order worthy of filling up to the brim, it seems as though the story to follow would compose all the excitement, sweeping majesty, and the interpersonal horn-locking quintessential to so many outstanding works of fiction, produced from deep within the bowels of Bollywood or elsewhere. But instead, what comes forth isn’t at all captivating or juicy; what we have here is a flat, entirely one-dimensional laying out of a group of forgettable fops caught up in the midst of an even more forgettable story. Sadly, characters have the obnoxious tendency to flit in and out of scenes quicker than pigeons attacking a handful of sunflower seeds -- aside from the two leads, none are drawn into any sort of permanent existence outside of their brief relevance to the story for a fleeting moment in time. Worse still is the criminal lack of attention allotted to the principle tale at hand; only a few glimpses are offered into the unfortunate murder of the poet and the political intrigue of her murdering lover, and most of the book’s scant 202 pages are afforded to the backstory applicable to Binod and Rabinder -- a backstory which, tragically, is hardly worth a second glance, let alone the bulk of the action.
Given this disregard for what works and what obtusely does not, it’s no small feat to follow the goings on of these two men and the rather suspicious company they choose to keep. They drift in and out of affairs with various women -- none of them lasting any longer than the span of the two men’s attentions, it seems -- but never really seem to develop from these instances of nihilistic confrontation. Nobody Does the Right Thing could have been a very winning story of politics, corruption, greed, and opportunity, but instead what we’re left with is a hollowed out shell of potential; an empty story stocked with teflon characters.
More than the bumbling Binod and his devilish cousin Rabinder, I would like to have heard more from Mala Srivastava, the murdered poet whose work revolved around subjects like mocking “the manhood of Indian leaders,” and demanding that the Indian national anthem be “inscribed on the body of Benazir Bhutto.” A few more dirty details on the man wielding the murder weapon -- his being a prominent politician only adding insult to fatal injury -- would have been a far welcome change from the mundane goings on of Binod and his kin. Had her tragic life ever managed to become the film for which the journalist/protagonist was attempting to write the story, it would probably give its opening weekend competition serious reason to make the transition to television, instead.
Nobody Does the Right Thing is fatally misguided in its choice for primary story focus; oh that the author had broken away from the mold of the characters and done the right thing. Spike Lee, at least, would have been proud.
Nobody Does the Right Thing by Amitava Kumar
Duke University Press