Pawan Mishra’s first novel is an oddly comic tale. Ostensibly about a clerk in an unnamed business in northern India who cannot shake the compulsion to jingle the coins in his pocket. He becomes an object of ridicule amongst his work peers and eventually an excuse for them to torment in order to enliven their own banal lives. Coinmain reads as an allegory of sorts reminiscent of Kafka’s stories (though not as darkly bizarre) lampooning bureaucracy and the pettiness of low level functionaries.
Kesar is renamed Coinman by his company due to his habit and though he attempts to change this, his efforts prove fruitless. Impotence is the watchword for Coinman as he is bullied by his office mates in an unrelenting and bizarre manner. His co-workers seize upon his habit to at first simply gossip about him and make him the butt of their jokes during breaks. These petty corporate cogs soon develop an acute animosity towards Coinman. Mishra writes his characters in an unnerving grandiose vernacular, which does an excellent job of conveying just how strange these office proles are,
“This is no martyrdom that we are doomed to suffer for our entire lives,” he went on more gently. “It’s good that we are able to generate good humor out of this to somewhat reduce our anguish, but the coins torture us not only at the office but also at home. On the bus, in a taxi, while eating, playing, sleeping–I can hear that shameless, wicked sound all the time. It’s like the coins have been place permanently in our minds.”
It’s clear that the coins serve some symbolic purpose, yet Mishra never makes an attempt to explain. He merely presents his narrative with a deep suggestion. But the politicking of the fools who harangue Coinman is clearly meant to somehow alleviate their drone status,
“So everyone, almost unknowingly, is always on the lookout for people who are suitable to receive a certain part of that proportion. This is where people find you a permanent receiver of humiliation, impoliteness, and insolence. They understand you as someone who can publicly be laughed at.”
Perhaps as a cautionary tale is how Mishra hopes to have us understand his novel as he frames it as a story told by Sesha, a disciple, at the command of Sage Mangal, a man whose presence is only dimly explained. Yet the narrative is pregnant with comedic gems that send up the pettiness of interpersonal relations, work, home, and relationships while simultaneously taking them painfully serious,
“Yes, many times a huge problem gets solved with a trivial move. It’s only a matter of effort.”
Perhaps my favorite moments in the novel are when Mishra dives full force into this kind of playfulness as when he has a character explain to Coinman about the utter import of a proper goatee:
“People often gauge your beard first to discern more about you. And if you have a good, healthy, and attractive beard, especially a goatee, you tend to make an instant good impression. A positive goatee sets the platform right in your favor even before you start a conversation. Many a time, you may not even have to speak, however difficult the situation; your goatee speaks for you. To tell the truth, the person conversing opposite to a goatee holder feels that goatee can look into his mind and read it like a book. And that hypnotizes him to tell all his secrets all by himself. A goatee is to beards what diamonds are to ornaments.”
The tone of the novel stays steady throughout showing us the disarray that is Coinman’s home life as well as the mire that his his workplace. However, Mishra shines when he is satirizing the regularly ridiculous bureaucracy that is infused into any business environment whether in India or the US. For example, this vividly stupid yet entirely believable process for handling employees:
Discipline at the office had long been enforced by the use of three methods: the meeting of the first kind, the meeting of the second kind, and the meeting of the third kind. These easy-to-remember methods were comprehensively documented in the employee handbook to help managers enforce superlative discipline at the workplace. The new associates were told about them as part of their on-boarding process. In a nutshell, when a discipline infringement occurred, its scale determined the method. A bigger offense warranted a meeting of a higher kind. It was technically possible, as was well documented in the handbook, to upgrade a meeting to the next kind on the spot if the need and circumstances left no other option. However, this was roundly discouraged to ensure the right application the first time; one of the things people did best at the office was to use flexibility to its last atom. It was not permitted, however, to upgrade a meeting of the first kind directly to a meeting of the third kind; it had to then go through the two-level process–an upgrade to the second kind, and then, if proceedings of the second kind warranted, another upgrade to the third.
As a study or allegory of the workplace, Coinman stands as a rather intriguing and good satire. Mishra’s prose is highly stylized and engaging, which suits his topic. There isn’t much emotional connection or provocation in the narrative outside of superficial empathy with Coinman as he is harassed and a shared frustration at the labyrinthine nonsense surrounding him. But given how brief the novel is and how quickly it reads, this can be overlooked. Mishra’s first novel is certainly worth the read.
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