It is difficult to categorise ‘The Exorcism of Satish Kumar MBA’ by Ramiah Ariya into any particular genre. The book starts off as typical corporate lad-lit fiction with a lowly software engineer trying to find out if he is next in the list of employees to be laid off, and swiftly picks up pace to metamorphose into a part satire, part science fiction and part paranormal thriller laced with office politics, international conspiracies, sorcerers with postgraduate degrees in neurology, mercenaries of a private equity giant, car chases along the traffic-clogged Chennai roads and a sequence of bizarre quests including a voyage into the underworld.
An unlikely protagonist, Arjun Palani is anything but a hero, even to his timid self. Having been fired three times previously, all he wants is to hold on to his job in BSD Technology which has started to lay off its employees in batches ever since the CEO disappeared. But when his friend Raj hacks into the company’s laying off list, Arjun is surprised to find that not only there are specific instructions not to terminate him, he has been singled out for the first time in his career for a special assignment.
The new project requires him to complete a series of strange tasks such as fetching cannabis and kidnapping a young woman descended from a warrior clan. Determined to keep his job, Arjun takes up one challenge after the other, noting that he is the only one to actually work while the management team members sit in a conference room and talk among themselves in worried tones, even as mysterious screams and crashing sounds issue forth periodically from the adjacent room which is kept locked. At some point, he realises that both he and the CEO were pawns in a game which itself was part of a much larger conspiracy linked to a software program that could affect the world, which then triggers his journey into the underworld and his adventures thereafter.
There are several things that I enjoyed about the book, most of all the humour which pervades almost every other page. Arjun Palani is a genuinely funny narrator. His philosophical reflections on life and the corporate world invoke laughter even as he goes through difficult and dangerous situations. There are several hilarious scenes such as the dosa shop for sad programmers where Arjun and his friends trick the rival company’s men into getting beaten up by worn out techies, Arjun’s crush on Malini and his jealousy when she prefers Raj over him and his description of the Technology Evangelist Muthiah’s motivational therapy classes.
The human bonding between programmers over technology comes out in the interaction between Raj, Legolas and Akram, which reminded me more than once of the geeks selflessly helping each other in Robin Sloan’s ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour bookstore’. Raj comes across as a true friend, who saves Arjun’s life through his technical skills. He was my favourite character in the novel. The book takes the reader on a tour through the city of Chennai before the action moves to Ahi, the other world. Most of the characters are sketched out in detail, and come alive, even the long dead warrior chieftain Vellaya Thevan.
The second part of the book is somewhat surreal and a few loose ends are left open, presumably to the reader’s imagination, though this does not take away anything from the story. There are several though-provoking lines within the lighthearted prose which allows the book to be read at various levels – as a fast-paced, humorous thriller or a satire which ruminates on unpalatable realities in the corporate world.
Note: Ramiah is my colleague and I have also enjoyed reading his Tamil short stories on his blog http://ramsrants.blogspot.in/. I look forward to read his next book.