The two reviews were originally published in the Asian Review of Books.
The Peacock Throne and Fireproof
Two recent novels pose very different answers to the same question: how does a writer attempt to make sense out of an act of senseless violence? One approach, perhaps, could be to scrutinize the scene in the deepest detail, so as to construct a plausible how and why of the event. When the sum of the facts seems inadequate, illumination might lie in examining the minutiae of the setting; the personal can, after all, convey the political with an intensity an overview of history could never achieve.
SUJIT SARAF, in his novel THE PEACOCK THRONE, provides a worm’s eye view of the political machinations surrounding India’s communal riots over the past twenty-odd years. The novel takes as its starting point the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the subsequent slaughter of members of the Sikh community by angry Hindus in the city of Delhi. Told from the viewpoint of Gopal Pandey, a tea-seller of minimal agency, THE PEACOCK THRONE encompasses the major political upheavals of the last two decades, including the destruction of the Babri Masjid (mosque) in 1992 by Hindu fundamentalists, and the ensuing religious violence.While rich shop-owners and political leaders slug it out for political power in India’s capital, Gopal, the tragic everyman figure, is exploited hopelessly even as he fights to earn a modest livelihood selling tea from his makeshift stall. Gopal possesses below-average intelligence, and his condition is further exacerbated by his myopic vision. His scratched and clouded glasses (which serve as a somewhat obvious metaphor for his obliviousness to the political chicanery around him) do not help much.
THE PEACOCK THRONE is a novel of Old rather than New Delhi, and communal politics rather than the booming Indian economy determine a person’s fate. No information technology companies or multinationals here; family businesses hawk their sweets and saris cheek-by-jowl with brothels in the crowded streets of Chandni Chowk. The book’s title refers to the seat of power of the former Indian empire, and it is this symbolic power that the residents of Old Delhi continue to fight for, over 750 pages of (very) detailed description.
While I admire Saraf’s painstaking depiction of the seamy side of Delhi life, the welter of detail can overwhelm the story. The author explains the convolutions and compromises of local Indian politics (and the role of religion in the same) in a depth few fiction writers have attempted before, but it is likely to be a long haul for the reader who does not have a prior interest in the subject. Furthermore, the narrative is relentlessly depressing — none of the characters earns our respect or affection, and while we feel sorry for Gopal, he is sometimes too much of a caricature of the common man for any real sympathy from the reader.
Ultimately, though, THE PEACOCK THRONE is a praise-worthy attempt to examine the social and religious violence pulsing below modern India’s effort to cast itself as a shiny happy economic superpower. Those who’ve formed their opinion of India based primarily on, say, Thomas Friedman’s relentlessly chirpy NYT column, should be chained to their La-Z-Boys and made to read this book.
A writer might also choose to explain the inexplicable by viewing the event through the lens of fantasy. The seemingly implausible sometimes demands an authorial intervention in the form of allegory and magic realism, which might perhaps lead to a more accurate understanding than the facts could ever hope to engender. RAJ KAMAL JHA takes the latter route in his novel FIREPROOF, which deals with India’s 2002 religious riots, in which over a thousand people (most of them Muslims) were murdered in the state of Gujarat.FIREPROOF begins with the birth of a child, when another everyman, Mr. Jay, is presented with his baby at the hospital the day after the Ahmedabad riots. The infant has no recognizable human features apart from its eyes. Even as Jay deals with the shock, he sees a message “Help me” on the window of a room in the neighboring ward, and glimpses an unknown woman’s figure. The woman subsequently gets in touch with Jay, promising to help him with the baby while his wife recovers in the hospital, and sends him to meet a dwarf named Bright Shirt, who will presumably explain all.
Meanwhile, the city of Ahmedabad is on fire, and the murdered insist on telling their tales. Even as the dead refuse to be nameless and faceless, interjecting their life-stories in the midst of Jay’s narrative, voices of inanimate objects (a book, a towel and so on) relate their eye-witness accounts of the violence. The carnage of the riots is ultimately encapsulated in three tales of rape, murder, and arson respectively.
How do people who have been living together peacefully for centuries suddenly ignore all other identities and bonds to focus on religion alone? Who exactly is complicit, who is culpable — and where does the distinction lie? FIREPROOF poses some searing questions, and provides some thought-provoking answers, especially in the climax of the novel, when the unexpected connection between the characters (real, dead, and inanimate) and the slaughter of the preceding days is finally revealed.
Jha is a courageous, confident writer who isn’t scared of taking risks with his narrative, and FIREPROOF, with its unconventional storyline and refusal to delineate fact and fiction succeeds brilliantly — for the most part. A narrative so dependant on whimsy calls for agile prose, but Jha’s writing undermines the passion of this fanciful tale. Economy is clearly not a quality the author aspires to, but how about a distinction between lushness and prolixity? There is, for instance, a scene where the narrator, Jay, is watching a television show of a man devouring insects. The author not only mentions that the insects “writhed, squirmed, crawled” but goes on to say: “Beetles, crickets, flies, cockroaches, ladybugs, spiders, dragonflies, caterpillars, insects I couldn’t name, red, white, green, yellow, black, monochrome, dichromatic, spotted, speckled, striped, banded…”
And a description of Bright Shirt’s shirt: “…blue and red and green and yellow and white and black, stripes, checks, triangles, circles, swirls, ellipses, straight lines, curls.”
This book would soar so much higher if not for the leaden tails of modifiers weighing down the narrative every few pages; all too often, my eye would skim a series of endless descriptions in search of the elusive thread of the plot.
THE PEACOCK THRONE and FIREPROOF are both important novels, seeking to explore the nature of evil and the petty reasons that accrete to give birth to monstrous acts of violence. The most obvious thread tying these two novels for me, however, was the most banal — these books, with a bit of judicious editing, could have halved their respective sizes, and thus doubled their impact. I might not revisit these novels again, but I’m certainly glad to have known them.