On 6 December 1992, a mob brought down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. For two days, my best buddy, a political journalist, didn’t turn up at work. Surprised, and also very keen to engage him on what was clearly a seminal mishap, I phoned him at home. In response, he said, “My father has advised me not to move out of the house for a few days (in case there are riots).” For the first time, I confronted the fact that my friend was a Muslim; maybe because I was born in modern India or otherwise, an individual’s denomination had never figured in my friendship lexicon. It was the end of innocence.
The events that unfolded after that fateful day inspired David Davidar, who wears two caps —publisher and author—to pen his second book, The Solitude of Emperors. Published, not surprisingly, by Penguin, Davidar’s employers, the book uses the narrative of the deepening communal divide in the country to tell a poignant story. Once again, like his first work of fiction, The House of Blue Mangoes, the setting is the South. Though it starts off sedately, the gripping narrative quickly picks up pace.
It is developed around the protagonist, Vijay, who by sheer coincidence ties his fortunes to a magazine that espouses the secular cause and is published by a venerable Parsi. Along the way, Vijay loses his innocence, turns activist and then eventually makes peace with himself, partially by accepting the stark terms of life around us today. But not before readers live through the Mumbai riots of 1993 and then see the near destruction of another place of worship, the Tower of God, in the Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu which, despite having Christian overtones, attracts followers of every hue.
The Solitude of Emperors: Penguin, 256 pages, Rs495
It may be too early to judge Davidar, but clearly he is not afraid to try some deft moves. One very interesting effort was to actually couch a second narrative within the book, which in effect is his ideological spiel. It strings the lives of Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi to argue a case for secularism. Though there were initial misgivings, by the end of the book, it did feel as though the trick actually worked.
While readers are obviously free to make their own interpretations, to me there was no doubt that Davidar was delivering a stinging critique of contemporary India—and by extension, of the world. The timing could not be better. While the Babri Masjid demolition introduced us to the right-wing Hindu parties, today we find that playing with religion is everybody’s preserve. Perceived slights because of growing proximity to the US have to be offset by a naïve strategy of forging together a package to provide special reservation for Muslims in employment.
Yet, the very same Congress party which leads the ruling United Progressive Alliance has, without the support of the Left parties, passed a preposterous legislation in Andhra Pradesh that bans the practice of other religions within an undefined vicinity of the Tirupati temple. Presumably, it is yet another effort to be seen as even-handed, a very peculiar way of demonstrating secular values.
Davidar’s book, without sermonizing, brings this point home through his characters. An instance is when a worried defender of the Tower of God helps Vijay understand their common adversary, Rajan, a right-wing politician: “For him the question of whether the piece of rock is Hindu, Christian or animist is not about their religion, it’s a means to an end, and that end is Rajan’s rise to power. He dons the garb of a religious fanatic because it is useful to him, not because he is more religious than the next man. No, Rajan is as secular as any secular person you know, and uses religion in a purely secular way to achieve his goal.”
Strikes a chord?
It is also welcome as it is part of a new genre of books which provide commentary on contemporary India. Four years ago, I recall, a leading American publisher had, over a drink, lamented that the bulk of Indian writing in English was focused on the early years and failed to dwell on the last 20 years, when the country underwent dramatic changes.
Not only has India surged in economic terms, but regional, communal and caste divides have deepened, all of which have provided a challenging palette to the creative juices of artists as well as writers. The publisher should be pleased, because Davidar’s effort is the latest among a slew of releases—which include Maximum City by Suketu Mehta and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai—that don’t just make for great reading but also provide an incisive critique of modern India.