In Lucknow, a politically motivated mob of bloodthirsty people kills a Muslim man, M, a local tailor’s apprentice. A ten-year-old child witnesses this harrowing act of violence at his aunt’s wedding ceremony. Little did this boy know that this singular incident of hatred will not only go on to inform his future as such traumas seldom leave one’s subconscious mind, but will also play a significant role in the rise of a political party in power that will shamelessly celebrate such acts, for there’s no substance to their governance promises besides leveraging the polarisation of the minds and hearts of its people.
This – India’s journey from a recently liberalised economy in the 1990s to an almost authoritarian regime post-2014, juxtaposed with the coming-of-age story of the boy, Shubhankar Trivedi, who witnesses the act of hate crime noted above – is the setting of Santanu Bhattacharya’s carefully structured, exquisite and lyrical debut One Small Voice. Bhattacharya, whose book was named one of the top ten debut novels for 2023 by The Observer, grew up in India and studied public policy at Oxford University. Though his work, which is built on India’s most recent historical events is topical in nature, the storytelling is refreshing for a variety of reasons.
India, 1992 and after
The Trivedis are a middle-class family. Bhattacharya captures their everydayness with complete authenticity. Sample this: “Ma oiled his hair and bathed him with the Palmolive soap that was otherwise kept only for guests. Papa drew a straight partition with a sharp comb, making sure not a single strand of hair stood out, then sprinkled Pond’s talcum powder over his neck and massaged it into his skin.” However, at no point does the author fail to articulate the hyper-invisible labour of women that goes into sustaining such a household. For example, when Shubhankar’s father says, “Your Dada-ji did fight for independence. Otherwise, we’d still be polishing the shoes of the British,” his mother replies: “Yes, your Dada-ji drove out the firangs, then brought me into the family to polish everyone’s shoes.”
But the book explores more religious fault lines than gender ones. It begins at the pivotal moment that helped India veer into a markedly different direction from its secular roots: the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. While in the newly liberalised economy, the Hindu middle-class households felt secure and thus thrived, the demolition cemented a feeling in the Muslims that they weren’t welcome in the new, Hindutva India. Shubhankar’s life, thus, becomes a quintessential case in point not because of a singular act but the virtue of the repeatability of violence – in all its forms and variety – he begins to internalise. One of them is being stripped of any freedom to choose his own journey. His life is already designed by the larger political underpinnings and the middle class’s ambition to foray into the riches by getting an English education, studying engineering, leaving the country to make money in dollars, and marrying a suitable woman from the same caste (goes without saying).
This circle is repeated. That’s the most prominent characteristic of One Small Voice: it characterises and even mocks the mechanical repeatability of our existence and place in an increasingly communal world.
It’s also noteworthy how Bhattacharya structures the book using names of the elemental forms that make up this material world: Agni/Fire, Prithvi/Earth, Ankur/Sapling, Vayu/Wind, Jal/Water, Dhaatu/Metal, and Aakaash/Space. Interestingly, the English translations of the Hindi words are italicised, not vice versa. Then, the parts that make this book a whole begin with Zero and end with Zero, and the Fire that ignites the beginning of the story gets consumed and culminates in Fire, mimicking the Hindu karmic cycle, for its principal protagonist happens to practice this faith.
The future is foretold in the present
This repeatability is both subliminal and evident. Then, contrary to the claim, it’s the future that repeats itself, not the past. As Bhattacharya notes via Shubhankar’s voice in this book, though this story is old, it’s renewed time and again. Or perhaps the future is foretold in the present. This has been the case at least in India. Not only for the minorities but also for its powerful sects, for the gap between them widens by the second because one is pushed towards the periphery while the centre continues to shrink and strengthen – the atomisation of society. And this is shown very well by weaving a cast of unforgettable characters.
There’s Nani whose presence is quintessential in the book. Shubhankar’s parents, his younger brother, Chintoo, and the Dwivedi sisters in Lucknow. And in Mumbai, where Shubhankar reinvents himself as Shabby, his flatmate Ganjeri, whom he eventually starts desiring, Shruti, Shakku-bai and her son, Mangesh, and the foreigners living in Mumbai and leveraging all sorts of perks that come with desirable skin colour.
The book is mostly set in Mumbai – a city where animosity against anyone from outside the place is channelised through a variety of ways. It seems to be the perfect place to make most of this cast jostle with each other, as it’s the city’s intrinsic characteristic, for until and unless you’re filthy rich it entangles individual journeys and makes for a space where all sorts of microaggressions resulting from the class, caste, regional, and religious divide snowball eventually to create situations whose consequences burst right into our faces with deeply tragic – and irreversible – outcomes.
The novel seems to pose this question, Why does this happen? Is there no one that can fight this invisible but evident war? The reason is that not everyone gets to tell their story. And to fight this war against manufactured hatred, fake news, and communalism, each voice and story matters no matter how feeble or strengthless. This is why, in the first person, Bhattacharya makes Shubhankar not only tell his but M’s story also. But M’s murder is not the only defining one in his life. An incident in Mumbai drastically changes his life when he becomes the “victim” in Mumbai.
It’s fitting to recall that earlier in the narrative, “Ma tells Shubhankar that he is a Hindu. He’s safe. Those destroying Masjid are also Hindus,” but a hate-filled world consumes everyone without discrimination. In addition to a certain gender or religious identity that shields you from violence for a while, money is considered immunity, too. Nothing can be further from the truth as Ganjeri notes that even having money didn’t help his family. It’s deeply telling of the author’s nuance delivery of this story that he makes Ganjeri talk about the “story economy”, and how Shabby must make the best use of it, for society gives him a heroic identity right after the life-altering incident.
The novel is a portrait of India’s fault lines. It underlines with finesse that despite everything we’re silencing our voices just to subscribe to the idea of a oneness that’s actually divisive. Just like home, as Bhattacharya notes in the novel, “is an oversold concept”, the idea of unification by erasing a particular part of the whole is oversubscribed, too. It ultimately produces “citizens of nowhere”.
One Small Voice, Santanu Bhattacharya, Fig Tree/Penguin Random House.