Chandan Pandey’s Legal Fiction begins with a disclaimer: “Everything in Legal Fiction is fiction. All that is fiction is fiction, of course, but even the truth is fiction.” Fittingly, this slim, unputdownable novel, recently translated into English by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari from the Hindi Vaidhanik Galp (2020), becomes an interesting (read clever and subversive) exploration of truth(s) in what is clearly a post-truth, present-day India.

The word “brave” jumps up and insists on attaching itself to the book. We shall resist the temptation. That Pandey pulls no punches and plunges headlong into the complications of politics, communalism, and the absurd but dangerous rhetoric of “Love Jihad” does not make the novel brave. It makes it mimetic.

But there comes that disclaimer, pulling the reader in from the first word, telling us, comfortingly, “If the people, stories, places and incidents at any point appear to be true, it is our collective misfortune. We advise you to consider it a fault of the imagination and move on.”

Moving on then.

Location / narration

Spanning a total of three days, Legal Fiction is set, for the most part, in possibly-fictional Noma, a small town in Uttar Pradesh of 2015. Our narrator, Arjun Kumar, unsure of his success as writer/poet, self-identifying only as an employee of a publishing house, living in metropolitan, successful, shiny Gurgaon (before its magical nomenclatural transformation into Gurugram), receives a phone call from an ex-girlfriend, asking for help with finding her missing husband.

Like Odysseus, our hero sets out on a quest. Unlike Odysseus, time is finite and heroic masculinity is a toxic shade Arjun is not. It is easy to identify with Arjun. He sits in his study, going over a heavily annotated volume he has no memory of having annotated. He dislikes travel. He preserves old letters and photographs. He is constantly second-guessing himself. He is too self-conscious to hug his wife in public.

Like a 19th century narrator, Arjun addresses his reader directly. He makes a seemingly innocuous confession of having supplied words for a character too overwrought to complete her own sentences. This act of speaking to the reader, however, is a smart narrative strategy, making his reader complicit, pulling them into the action and also its fallout.

The plot is immersive. Arjun finds himself in an unfamiliar space, trying to unearth the mystery of the man who has gone missing. Rafique Neel, married to Anasuya, is an ad-hoc teacher at a degree college. The plight of the ad-hoc, the impermanence, the constant struggle to validate themselves in front of those in authority is something generations of young academics in India have ample experience of. He also runs a theatre group as writer, director, and actor.

Arjun attempts to piece together Rafique’s past from a pastiche of journal entries, snatches of the script of his play and a few photographs. In the course of this amateur investigation, he is brought into close contact with the power structures of the town- the nexus between politicians and the police. The story turns not so much on solving the mystery as it does on exposing the underbelly of an unjust, iniquitous society.

Communal conflagration

On his way to Noma, Arjun comes across the news report of a college girl gone missing. Janaki is Savarna Hindu and therefore at least merits print space, unlike Rafique, whose religious identity makes him expendable. Her having been a student of Rafique, as well as a member of his theatre group, however, leads to the age old conclusion of them having run away together.

In modern-day India, this supposed elopement is not just a small-town scandal or a piece of salacious gossip; it is “love jihad”. The fact of two and subsequently, four members of a theatre group performing a play detailing an attempted mob lynching becomes easy to erase once communal passions are inflamed and the threat to a Hindu majority from an errant Muslim minority is fed to a community only too willing to believe in the villainy of the “Other”.

Pandey captures perfectly the essence of the small town in northern India. The aspirations announced in hoardings of coaching classes, the upward mobility implied in the posters of a Bigger Bazaar, narrow streets, small communities and a world where everyone knows everyone else. In this self-contained space, it becomes impossible to ignore the claustrophobia of communal tension.

The narrative introduces us to Mangal Morcha, a political organisation that appropriates figures like Swami Vivekananda in the name of “Indian culture”, arranges for pilgrimages, religious feasts, and festivals, and, when the political climate demands it, lynchings. Rafique’s play, as Arjun gradually discovers, is about a policeman who saves a Muslim youth from a mob. “But all they wanted was a Muslim. They would have killed me if I was alone,” says Niyaz, the boy whose story Rafique wanted to tell.

Niyaz’s saviour is subsequently suspended and kept under surveillance. The fictions of the text come perilously close to the fictions we tell ourselves when we see our social reality as anything but hostile to the most vulnerable.

Silence and wordlessness

Titled Bachane Wala Hai Bhagwan! (“The One Who Saves Is God!”), Rafique’s play, performed in various parts of town already, was his attempt to make people respond to the meaninglessness of violence. “People often refuse to look in the mirror because they fear the reflection may show a criminal’s face,” reads a diary entry.

Silence becomes complicity. Forcing people to look into mirrors, to break the silence that is born out of the fear of upsetting norms is perhaps the biggest challenge democracies face today. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to understand that the growing popularity of the play was an obvious threat to organisations that thrive on the ideology of divisiveness and hatred.

It is hence only to be expected that performances of the street play would be disrupted and disrupted violently. In a country where activists and intellectuals are routinely silenced and incarcerated, where protesters are made to disappear, the disappearance of Rafique and members of his group begins to make an alarming kind of sense.

There is a familiar discomfort to life in Noma. Caste and religion draw indelible boundaries. Women have no agency. Anasuya might have liberated herself from the disapproval of her brothers and her family in the past, but in this everyday dystopia, all she can do is plead for help. She cannot fight her own battles. She is entirely circumscribed within the gendered roles of wife and mother.

Her life is worth saving not because of whatever value it might have but because she is to be mother, that hallowed category of woman who has no intrinsic worth outside of being a womb. Anuradha, and Janaki, two other characters often mentioned, are never seen. Invisibilisation is just another kind of disappearing, perhaps.

Language and performance

Considering that the plot is so taut, so cognisant of political and social tensions, it is remarkable how often Pandey turns the reader’s attention to mediations on language and truth-telling. Acknowledging the frequent inadequacy of words, Arjun complains, “Language and vocabulary render us helpless in moments of despair (…) Words abandon us, and one doesn’t know the right ones to use.”

When he reads Rafique’s dismembered diary, when he tries to put together a history of the person and the performance of his social self, Arjun finds himself grappling with the nature of truth. How does one divine truth when faced with a multitude of narratives, or with fragmentation and disjuncture? Is truth an absolute, or a shifting uncertainty that changes based on perspective? Pandey gives us no easy answers.

Instead, he sneakily inserts destabilising questions about performativeness throughout the book. Arjun, rank outsider to Noma, is invited to a soiree, a gathering of the rich and the powerful, perhaps owing only to his privileges of gender and class. At this event he is asked by a political bigwig if it is possible to distinguish between a man and his image.

Images/myth, need never intersect with reality, literature tells us. And yet, we often witness men, typically, men in positions of power, trapped in an image, unable to transform back from myth to man.

When Arjun reads Rafique’s play in juxtaposition with the playwright’s personal notes, he seems to break the barrier between the actor and the character the actor plays. In the words of Niyaz, “every time I saw Rafiq playing me, I thought he was a better Niyaz than I was.”

The man has become a complex composite, acquiring dimensions outside of himself. Continuing this pattern of Kafkaesque transformations, towards the end of the narrative, Arjun himself seems to turn into a version of Rafique.

Legal Fiction raises multiple questions. Primary of these is one of social responsibility. The author does not dress it up in the stodgy costumery of moral positioning or heroic posturing. Arjun remains flawed and never quite reaches the end of his quest. Why then do we read this story? Why do we need literature that asks participation of us, that forces us into guilty stillness?

These are the same question many of us have confronted while failing to make sense of the horrors of the pandemic and attempting to find answers in art- sometimes, literature is escape, sometimes, it is therapeutic, sometimes it is a plunge into social consciousness. Legal Fiction performs the same function as the play within it. It holds up a mirror to socio-political reality and hopes to bring about change. The rest, of course, is up to the reader’s faults of imagination.

Legal Fiction

Legal Fiction, Chandan Pandey, translated from the Hindi by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari, HarperCollins India.