Prelude To A Riot by Annie Zaidi
Annie Zaid’s Prelude to a Riot was my favourite read this month. Set in an unknown village in South India, Zaidi narrates the beginning of the end, creating a terse atmosphere with a series of soliloquies, poetry, letters and newspaper articles.
Prelude to a Riot describes the oncoming of an event that has been looming large on the minds of the book’s characters. Zaidi weaves in and out of a story riddled with communal tension, social disparity, patriarchal pressure and class exclusion. Her main characters ranging from Dada, a devout, tolerant landowner who talks lovingly to his plants, to Saju, who’s slowly turning into a fanatic.
No big colonial sword needs to come down and slash the fabric of the nation. Muscle by muscle, atom by atom, we are being torn from within. We are our own bomb.
Prelude to a Riot is a beautiful, haunting book for our times, accounting for division and uncertainty, of personal tensions slipping into communal unrest. However, it is punctuated with optimism, reflecting on Zaidi’s underlying message; that reasoned voices exist and though it is harder to hear them amidst gossip or jealousies, we must keep our ears and our hearts open.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Megha Majumdar’s A Burning was the book accompanying me through my ten-hour flight from Bangalore to London, and it kept me captivated throughout the journey – which is no easy feat.
Following the lives of three loosely linked characters, Jivan, a young muslim woman, Lovely, a young Hijra and PT Sir, Jivan’s old sports teacher, A Burning tells today’s story of digital public shaming and of the weaponisation of communal distrust.
If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean, I wrote on Facebook, that the government is also a terrorist?
Majumdar highlights how underprivileged groups are incentivised to fight amongst themselves. As a reader, this book felt like witnessing a train hurtling towards a cliff – unable to interfere but desperately yearning to. The book is simultaneously filled with hope and despair, with moments of optimism followed in rapid succession with downward spirals. Reminiscent of today’s cancel culture, Majumdar creates a novel echoing India’s communal disparity, its tendency to create divisions amongst itself and its journey towards digital implosion.
The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India by Urvashi Butalia
The Other Side of Silence was the sort of book that had me simultaneously unable to look away and longing to put down. Each chapter left me drained and distant from everything around me.
Urvashi Butalia compiled this extraordinary book of first-hand accounts of Partition, from voices that politics tend to obscure; those of women, lower castes and children separated from families. She focuses particularly on the dislocation endured by women, whose fates were decided by the men of their religious communities. Butalia narrates events such as a woman’s attempt to participate in a mass suicide of ninety women who drowned themselves in a well, a Dalit woman witnessing the violence between Hindus and Muslims, and the story of her own uncle, who remained behind in Pakistan with his mother, while the rest of his family travelled to India.
Twelve million people were displaced as a result of Partition. Nearly one million died. Some 75,000 women were raped, kidnapped, abducted, forcibly impregnated by men of the ‘other’ religion, thousands of families were split apart, homes burnt down and destroyed, villages abandoned. Refugee camps became part of the landscape of most major cities in the north, but, a half century later, there is still no memorial, no memory, no recall, except what is guarded, and now rapidly dying, in families and collective memory.
Butalia’s book is intricate, detailed and brutally honest. Butalia speaks of her research methodology and her decisions to include or exclude data with extreme openness, accompanying the stories with her own critical analysis and supplementing them with official documents, articles and magazines. A necessary read to understand the Partition of India, The Other Side of Silence was definitely one of the most worthwhile reads this month.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved tells the story of a family who escaped from slavery, and eighteen years on, are still reeling from the trauma that they experienced. Morrison writes such an intricate and unified novel that it is difficult to comment on it without giving the plot away.
The novel follows Sethe and her daughter, Denver, as they live in a house haunted by Sethe’s deceased daughter. Their uneasy lives are interrupted by the arrival of Paul D, one of Sethe’s fellow slaves at the plantation where she worked. Paul D exorcises the ghost and continues to live with Sethe and Denver, until a strange woman appears, and is taken in by Sethe and Denver.
Let me tell you something. A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.
Morrison’s characters revolve rapidly between their past and their present. Through fragments of incidents, we begin to construct a picture that looks extremely different from the inside than it is on the outside. Beloved leaves the reader spellbound and frozen in both hope and horror. Morrison’s characters are complex, and her images are graphic and evocative.
Beloved portrays the brutalities of slavery as well as the other unspoken atrocities that to unmentioned in the novel. Her writing is layered and detailed, and the reader never doubts the reality of Morrison’s depiction, despite her usage of magical realism.
Notes to Self by Emilie Pine
Exhausted after my month of reader, I picked up Notes to Self as an easy read, something light to add to my list. Instead, I was faced with six searing essays, all affecting me in different ways, each as painful, thought provoking and difficult to read.
In the first essay, Pine delivers a wry account of finding her alcoholic father on the verge of death in a Greek hospital, and the subsequent journey of caring for him, his sobriety and his recovery. In others, she explores the taboos around miscarriage and female conditioning, the shame associated with menstruation, the vulnerability of her ‘wild child’ years and the impact of being a child of separated parents in a country where divorce had been illegal.
Notes to Self brought up a lot of my own inner monologues, which, I think, is why it impacted me so deeply. It was an honest account of being a woman, of re-examining her memories to identify sexual exploitation, or shame where it did not need to be, of being silenced, branded as ‘feminazi’, of the pain that comes with infertility. The stories Pine tells are not new ones, but are told with an uncommon honesty. More than anything, they urge the reader to look back on their own lives, to reconsider their own vulnerabilities and to speak up for themselves when the world is trying to silence them.
Perhaps the most corrosive aspect of a lonely life is not the time spent alone, but the time spent in a crowd, feeling left out.
All the books that I’ve spoken about can be bought at The Bookshop, Joe Bagh Market (@_thebookshopjb).