For a nation that is passing through a sustained period of social, political and economic crises, India is yet to boast of recent works of fiction that capture the mood of the moment. Annie Zaidi’s latest novel, Prelude To A Riot, strives to fill this gap with its sharp and succinct portrait of the country’s fractious present.

Writers in the Anglophone world are already making bold strides into this emerging form of the novel, where fiction grazes against the grain of reality. Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet—of which Autumn, Winter and Spring have been published so far—written in real time in response to the upheavals caused by the Brexit referendum in the UK, is one example of fiction holding up a mirror to the vicissitudes of politics. Zaidi’s novel, in contrast, is set against a more contained canvas, and is certainly much less adventurous in its craft. But fiction, as Prelude To A Riot shows, can be a more poignant vehicle for truth-telling than journalism, especially in a climate where there have been challenges to freedom of speech.

Set in an unnamed town in south India, Prelude To A Riot tells a story of our time, pithily narrated through the voices of multiple characters, whose lives are intertwined and teetering on the edge of violence. With every turn of the page, their collective anxieties and frustrations threaten to erupt into full-fledged carnage. But, as the title insinuates, the plot is only a dress rehearsal for the implosion that would most likely follow. And although Zaidi ends her story on twin notes of hope—with the cry of the azaan floating out of a newly-built mosque in the neighbourhood and birdsong—the moment feels too precarious, too fleeting, to be cherished as a harbinger of healing.

The overwhelming tenor of Prelude To A Riot may remind many of Bhisham Sahni’s classic Hindi novel from 1974, Tamas (Darkness). A fog of conspiracy hovers over both stories. In Tamas, the public’s discontent is triggered by a shocking revelation. The carcass of a pig is left on the steps of the local mosque one morning in a small town in Punjab, in the wake of Partition. Soon, a whisper campaign about the possible perpetrators of this unholy act begins to fan a wildfire of anger among the Muslims. Inevitably, the Hindus rise to the bait too. And before the day is out, groups have consolidated, swearing revenge and bloodshed.

In Prelude To A Riot, there is a comparable scene of desecration as well, when Fareeda, a young Muslim girl, is unknowingly coaxed into eating pork by her mischievous school friends. Her family, who live by liberal values, decide not to make too much of it. But the air of menace continues to thicken. Like most women in the novel, 15-year-old Fareeda shows remarkable perspicacity in her muted reaction. She demonstrates a quality of restraint that eludes the bulk of the men around her. But any self-control and goodwill, especially from women like Miriam and Bavna, appear impotent in the face of the testosterone-driven hostility brewing among the close-knit community.

Prelude To A Riot is as much a novel about escalating communal tensions as about the insoluble differences between men and women when confronted with the prospect of murderous destruction. If Zaidi is keenly perceptive to the inner lives and dilemmas of the women, who are more rounded characters than the men, her depiction of the latter is laced with irony and pathos.

While Abu, a liberal Muslim with a scholarly bent of mind, is filled with trepidation about the fate awaiting his family, his neighbours, Saju and Vinny, keep stoking the embers of rage against Muslim businessmen like Kadir. But Abu is unable to convince his grandfather to move to the city, where he studies at the university. The older man is reluctant to leave his ancestral dwelling or to believe that the people he has coexisted with for decades could cause any harm to his family. Sickened by his failure to persuade his Dada to change his mind, Abu lashes out against the “disease" that he believes afflicts his family. “This household is infected by denial," he says in despair.

Denial, in this context, is not analogous to an ostrich-like refusal to face the truth. Rather, it is a form of resilience, a resistance against what seems obvious. It involves keeping a flickering flame of hope alive, the belief that maybe goodness, at the end of the day, will prevail over evil. Yet evil is perhaps too blunt a reproach, which does not quite capture the historical and social complexities that have brought this community to its heels.

As Zaidi shows, the tragedy is precipitated as much by years of misinformation, silence and conspiracy theories as by petty envies and avarice, rather than unbridgeable ideological divides. As Abu’s friend Devaki, who marries out of her caste in defiance of her family’s wishes, puts it vividly, “Three hundred years’ worth of stories, clogging up the arteries of our men. Sitting around their hearts, slimy and thick with half-truths."

In the figure of Garuda, the history teacher at the local school named after the mythical creature who symbolizes life, we hear a counterpoint to the vitiated narrative circulated by the locals. But he is sacked by the authorities, ostensibly for drinking on the school’s premises, but more likely because he digresses from textbook accounts prescribed in the syllabus by government-approved historians.

“A syllabus is ‘set’ for you. You understand?" he tells his students. “It is ‘set’ by people whose job it is to limit your knowledge. I am against syllabuses." In Garuda’s droll rants, we hear the ire of a crusader against forces destroying the edifice of liberal democracy, the voice that does not hesitate to militate even when it is drowned by the cacophony of a mob. “No big colonial sword needs to come down and slash the fabric of the nation," he ends his last lecture with a bitter flourish. “Muscle by muscle, atom by atom, we are being torn from within. We are our own bomb."

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