Novels with overt political agendas fill me with suspicion; their crusading zeal often overwhelms the story to such an extent I’d rather read the pamphlet, thanks. So, without further ado: let’s hear it for David Davidar’s new novel The Solitude Of Emperors, which, despite its block, underlined WORTHY MESSAGE, never forgets it’s a novel.
Vijay, a young man from small-town south India, with “a second-class degree from a third-rate college”, lands a job as editorial assistant at a small Mumbai-based magazine called The Indian Secularist, which focuses on sectarian issues. The founder of the publication, the benevolent Mr. Sorabjee, is writing a history textbook for high school students. Titled “The Solitude of Emperors”, the book examines three famous Indian secularists — Emperor Ashoka (Buddhist), Emperor Akbar (Muslim), and Mohandas Gandhi (Hindu).
Vijay’s first real assignment is in a small town, Meham, in the Nilgiri hills in south India. Meham boasts a famous shrine called the Tower of God. But whose God? The tower is claimed by Hindus and Christians, and its convoluted history would seem allow either possibility. Even as Vijay reads Mr. Sorabjee’s manuscript for inspiration and ammunition for his fight against the local Hindu fundamentalist politician, the chances of a confrontation between the shrine’s Christian custodians and Hindu protesters escalate steadily. Pleas to the local authorities to intervene are unheeded in a manner evoking the Ministry of Magic’s reaction to the resurrection of one Voldemort; the town’s officials are busy growing fuchsias.
Meanwhile, Vijay makes friends with Noah, an eccentric vagabond who lives in the local cemetery and scrapes a dubious living smuggling rare flowers while professing his love for modern European poets. Noah, who has been apparently been everywhere and done everything, views Vijay’s apprehensiveness with amusement.
Davidar thus creates three distinct viewpoints — that of the innocent, the wise man and the cynic respectively — to articulate different sides of the argument for secularism. The characters are fleshed out well-enough to never seem like mere mouthpieces; I found Vijay’s voice, with its pared-down eloquence, particularly convincing. And though Davidar’s agenda is thinly disguised, the plot has enough momentum to keep readers turning the pages to determine the fate of the shrine. An additional twist is provided by questions dogging Noah’s identity — did he really attend school in America? And hang out with Dom Moraes in a smoky Mumbai cafe? And make out with the gorgeous Maya?
Davidar’s argument for secularism gains additional historical weight by the device of Mr. Sorabjee’s textbook manuscript, which, while occasionally impeding the flow of the plot, is so well-written as to pull in the reader within a few paragraphs. (I feel compelled to state here that no such book ever crossed my high school days in India — my history texts were deadly dull.) Now, if only Mr. Sorabjee’s manuscript could actually find its intended audience, I’d be a lot more cheery about the future of Indian secularism.
(This review appears in the Asian Review of Books.)
Update: I’m also counting this book for the Canadian Book Challenge since Davidar now lives in Toronto.