Book Review | One young Indian maps changing nation, finds hope amid violence
Deccan Chronicle.| Malati Mathur
Cover photo of 'One Small Voice' by Santanu Bhattacharya. (Photo by arrangement)
Memories are potent living things…" muses the author at one point as his protagonist, Shubhankar — Shabby — Shub-ank-ah — grapples with a horrific childhood memory that sears his present and future with its (quite literal) crimson (saffron?) flames. Caste, class, religious, regional, gender violence is as much a part of the complicated warp and weft that weaves our country together as beautiful bonds of love and friendship and the former is seen and portrayed in all its starkness as a quite merciless seething mass of humanity occasionally heaves and breaks out into random acts of bloodshed before life settles back into a semblance of normalcy, leaving in its wake, countless traumatised and wounded minds, and bodies.
The great Indian middle class and its dreams for its children; the moving vignettes of middle class life with all its commonplace routines, ridiculousness, pomposity and real struggles — childish ruses, the tuneless and mechanical singing of folk songs like recitation of math tables by the women of the household during festivals or celebrations; the undiluted irony of fighting the British only to end up trying to be like them, complete with the desperation to get into an English medium school run by Christian nuns where only "Jejus" reigns, not some "Allah-Vallah" — are all fleshed out with humour and compassion, giving a composite picture of Indian society which, even if it may be macro in its assault on the senses, yet offers up slices of humanity that allow one to go on. In spite of… everything.
The essential conundrum of human nature which a poet once famously encapsulated in "We look before and after and pine for what is not", is brought to life when Shubhankar’s father laments all the changes that he sees around him and how he misses simpler times. Shubhankar wants to say to him — but doesn’t — "Isn’t this what you wanted…?" What he wanted for himself and when that didn’t seem possible, wanted it for his sons. But then, Shubhankar knows that this is how human beings are — once they’ve moved up the ladder they always wanted to climb, they look back and yearn, awash in nostalgia for the very things they wanted to leave behind.
There are moments like during the dahi-haandi ritual of the celebration of Krishna Janmashtami in Mumbai, when, as the athletic ‘govindas’ form a human pyramid and finally break the pot of yoghurt tied up distantly out of reach, and spoon it out to everyone gathered there — Hindu, Muslim Christian alike — Shubhankar thinks that the "yoghurt tasted like happiness", a bond that concretely speaks of what they have achieved together, a metaphor for shared human accomplishment. In the midst of prejudice and hate, there are the warmly uplifting descriptions of family ties and friendships imbued with tenderness and unquestioning support, inextricably bound up with notions of ‘home’ and the inherent contradictions latent in exercising the freedom to speak out against what one sees as wrong, at the risk of offending one’s own family or community — "which is better — bound by community, or alienated by freedom"?
The book traces the rise of religious nationalism in India, revealing the just-beneath-the-surface communalism and stereotyped prejudices that lurk in the most unexpected, ‘educated, modern’ corners of this vast land. The life of Shubhankar is inextricably tied up with real political and social events, beginning with the demolition of the Babri Masjid and its cataclysmic aftermath. The injustice of carefully constructed narratives that seeks to ‘otherise’ is articulated by one of the characters, a Muslim who exclaims in outrage: "when a Hindu riots, they’re protestors. When a Muslim riots, they’re terrorists!"
And yet, there is the realisation that love needs to win over hate; that forgiveness is the key to healing and that, just as the sins of the parents are often visited upon the children, so too will the hate-filled actions of children sometimes be redeemed by the humane acts of their parents, leading to the path of reconciliation and recovery.
The book is a grim reminder of what happens when one remains silent — the toll it exacts on both the silencer and the silencee; the distortions that creep into stories when people cannot or will not tell their own stories and other people presume to tell them on their behalf.
When the ‘nationalists’ win a landslide victory at the hustings, it is as though "the politicians are the new gods. They will decide where people pray, who can be friends, who can be neighbours, who can marry. The common people are nimitta-matra, little specks of dust, blips on the timeline that carry them from election to election.
They will never be anything more, and there is nothing lesser left for them to be."
This is a brave book. Enough said.
One Small Voice
By Santanu Bhattacharya
pp. 384, Rs.699
The reviewer, Malati Mathur, is a professor of English and director, School of Humanities, and director, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU, New Delhi. She is a creative writer and award-winning translator who translates from and between Tamil, Hindi and English.