Book Review: A Portrait of ‘Othering’

Our country is constantly driving a forced narrative in its undercurrents. A narrative that is ready to quash any counter-opinion under the garb of nationalism and exhibits itself through the good old ‘us versus them’ polarisation model. As we rely on writers, journalists, artists to debunk the fiction and reflect on the reality, Albert Camus’s words echo their efforts: “To create today is to create dangerously.”

We are offered a revisionist history of the very present  quite an oxymoron, but crucial nonetheless. And like what Sadat Hasan Manto was doing in 1947 – his stories as they now stand, offer a social commentary of his time, underlined in their exploration of the psychology of social processes – Annie Zaidi’s Prelude to a Riot will do exactly this for generations to come, when people look back on the years of rising hate and bigotry in India of the 21st century.

Lettered in red, the cover of the book reads: “A white-hot novel about today’s India”. Set in an unnamed town in South India, the book charts the catalytic ideas of communal disharmony through the intertwined lives of a Hindu and Muslim family. A narrative wound in soliloquies of characters from different classes, it holds attention through a sense of foreboding that begins with the seed of religious intolerance, a picture of how it is planted, who benefits from it, and whose lives are set to pay the price for it.

Part of an upper-caste Hindu family, Vinny and his Appa are the proponents of a hypocritical single-mindedness. They suspect migrants and local farm workers even as they continue to benefit from their labour, at once questioning the increase in their population and at the same time gloating over how little they are willing to work for. Their apathy goes on to admire the strength of their malnourished bodies, calling their nimble fingers capable of “bomb work”. The insecurity of their class and caste identity is heightened in an instant, when Vinny, who owns farm estates, wonders about how unfair it is as to how the state pampers tribals and labourers with rations.

Also read: Interview: Annie Zaidi on the Nine Dots Prize and Chasing ‘The Call of Blood’

A young Abu no longer sees a future in this village, fearing the coming of an ‘it’; scared for his little sister and grandfather who is unwilling to see conflicts simmering in the town. His frustrations are unable to counter the denial of the people around him, who refuse to see the slowly bigoted working of a Self Respect Forum, members of which are organising strikes, posing with guns and demanding for themselves the status of being the ‘true inhabitants’ of the land. In words very relevant to our dying democracy, he reflects, “That’s the thing, isn’t it? To not have to ask. It means you don’t have the right to say no.”

‘Prelude to a Riot’
Annie Zaidi
Aleph Book Company (2019)

Images from legitimate news sources find their reflection in the book in the form of a letter written by the forum to object to a piece of published poetry on the grounds of religious offence. The brutalities birthed in religious and class differences is horrifyingly reminded of in the ‘mysterious’ death of a Muslim youth when seen with the daughter of his upper-caste employer.

The way patriarchal oppression runs its course in this society is given its due through characters like Devaki who brings in history, logic and relevance to her arguments with her Appa only to be shut down, and similarly, later on by the changed loyalties of her husband. Zaidi, through the character of an old-actor-become-new-politician, also does not forget to implicate powerful celebrities for spewing venom and winning favours of political parties.

Rebecca Solnit, in an essay, once pointed out how a dominant culture is propped on dominant narratives that are “too often, also the bars of someone else’s cage.” And she says, part of a good storyteller is to examine them, to crush them. Zaidi does precisely this, not by presenting an alternate reality, a dystopia or a journalistic investigation; but by giving us a fictional piece of reportage rooted in our very own reality.

The characters are nothing but aliases of the people that surround us, the monologues giving a glimpse of their thought processes, the formation of selective empathy or indifference and that of self-serving justifications for hate. It draws a portrait of the gradual ‘othering’ by upper-caste Hindu men which finds its foundation in religion, caste, class and gender. It traces the divided spectrum of the Indian milieu, of its origin and continuation as the majority continues to thrive through the oppression of minorities while legitimising it through a false narrative of victimhood.

The lyrical prose which covers these dark undertones make the sense of fear more prominent, a building to an end that one already knows. In fact, there is nothing in it that you don’t already know, but the chilling reminders of where we are headed is all that is crucially needed right now. And that is what makes the book as insightful and remarkable as necessary.

Because, like the history teacher in it rightfully cares to remind his students, power has been sustained by rulers throughout the ages, with either fear or favour. And don’t we know, our rulers are being repulsively creative enough to use both. So then, what could beat it, if not the works of writers and artists, which for the structures of powers are dangerous creations, and which under the constant policing of this power, continue to be created dangerously.

Chakrika Pandey is currently doing her bachelors in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College. 

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty