I find it challenging to write about a novel that lingers in my mind long after I’ve read it. Few novels have the power to dissect you, limb by limb, offering little to no comfort. This one did it without remorse. I Named My Sister Silence was published in 2015 as Kaale Adhyaay, and translator Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s choice of a different title, as opposed to a literal translation – dark chapters – emphasises the narrator’s relationship with his sister.

The translation itself, however, accentuates a shift in Hindi-language literature and, arguably, world literatures. Twentieth-century Hindi-language literature was characterised by social realism and India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. While writers like Munshi Premchand addressed issues like poverty, caste discrimination, and women’s rights, poets like Subhadra Kumari Chauhan – who wrote the poem that many 21st-century Indian school students have stumbled onto in their Hindi textbooks: “Jhansi ki Rani” – formed the canon of patriotic and nationalist writings.

When more people could travel, so could literature. Twenty-first-century Hindi-language literature is more diverse and interconnected with the global literary scene, with writers addressing contemporary social and political issues, reflecting the increasing urbanisation of India and the influence of technology on the quotidian.

Against this changing backdrop, Manoj Rupda’s I Named My Sister Silence will not let you unwind, but it will wind you up with the anger of a forlorn lover silently destroying a mixtape they made for you. When I saw the novel on the 2023 JCB Prize for Literature longlist, I wasn’t surprised at all. Neither was I surprised by the description of the book offered by the Prize:

The places may have no resonance at all for us, except as forested lands with no facilities, not even worth tourism. As for the people, we believe that they are misled by activists who do not want them to access modernity.  

“Us” indicates a sense of identification with the intelligentsia, the ones who would care about the award to begin with, who know how to pace around the ballroom where liveried waiters carry flutes of champagne as we discreetly stuff hors d’oeuvre into our mouths, distracted. But from what, exactly? The description answers this question, too: “they”, referring to a different group of people, separate from the speaker and their audience (us).

More than a bildungsroman

A seemingly non-linear narrative set across several timelines, I Named My Sister Silence is more than a bildungsroman. It follows an Adivasi boy, an unnamed narrator, as he grows up and leaves his village at the insistence of his half-sister. When he was young, the narrator followed a mahout and his elephant into the forest and watched as a group of wild dogs and hyenas tore through their bodies. All of his family shunned him after he returned home – they didn’t ask a single question about where he was – except for his sister, who locked them in a room to bathe and fed the narrator as the rest of the family calmed down.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see why his sister loves him, especially since he’s the child of a remarriage between her father and a woman who persistently disparages her, accusing her of a sexual relationship with her son. You rarely see her talking in the novel – which seems apt, considering the title – but she’s not voiceless; she’s a danger that looms at large across the narrative.

Soon after the narrator realises that his sister is involved with the Naxalites, he leaves for an engineering college in Raipur, living in an “Adivasi Hostel” – “the hostel meant only for Adivasi students,” clarifies Rupda, driving home the disparity between “us” and “them” – where he learns that she has left home and “gone into the forest with Dada log.” From hereon, you see the narrator asking chains of questions as he becomes more educated, almost unabashedly, illustrating why his sister wanted him to get an education in the first place. To her, he wasn’t meant to join their fight just yet. Rupda effectively develops the narrator through the way he interacts with the reader, who observes his evolution through sentences that effortlessly jump across time.

After writing down the answer to the last question of the test, I left the exam centre immediately and went straight to the bus stand. I took the bus which would drop me at a dirt track about three kilometres from my village.

After obtaining his degree, the narrator sails the high seas until the global recession scraps his large cargo ship. During his stint as a ship engineer, a job that he quite literally stumbled into thanks to his friend Dhananjay, the narrator meets many other obsessive people, with the most obsessive of them all being Captain Alok Datt. Like the narrator’s sister, Datt lingers on the novel’s periphery without entering the narratorial space. The reader meets him only in the company of the narrator.

Captain Alok Datt’s words did not immediately make sense to me, but he continued to speak. He was just hurling details at me. Details and anecdotes. I had no way of verifying the veracity of the stories he told me. But I don’t think he was at all concerned about that, for his mind was imploding. He was just raring to pour it all out.  

The unravelling

The quick pace of the novel compresses the passage of time, and soon the narrator finds himself back in the village, searching for his sister. He attempts to unravel what his sister was up to, trying to understand why she joined the Naxalites and where she has been all this time. Upon his return, he discovers that his community has been divided into two groups: the ones with the government and everyone else who opposes them.

Due to his absence in the village, the government was able to enlist him as a Special Police Officer (SPO), an able-bodied individual appointed to assist the regular police force in maintaining law and order or carrying out specialised duties. They declared him and many others in the village martyrs, claiming that they were killed by Naxalites, and erected statues to honour them, swiftly rewriting history.

The second statue was that of my cousin, Madavi Budraiya, the son of my father’s brother Madavi Ayit. Budraiya was known all over the village by his nickname Chuchru. He was such a stay-at-home that it was impossible to see him outside the house except at sunrise and sunset when he went to empty his bowels. He occasionally went outside on an errant or two, but that too was quite rare. He had an idiotic look on his face, always kept sucking his thumb, and readily ate whatever he was given. My uncle was quite sharp and belligerent, ready to pick a fight at the drop of a hat. So his son’s idiocy and the habit of sucking his thumb bothered him a lot. One day, he started beating Chuchru with the whip used to hit bullocks. Chuchru neither screamed nor cried – he just started foaming at the mouth. That day onwards, Chuchru was left to his fate. I wondered who had recruited Chuchru as an SPO. Or had he been recruited at all?  

Similar to an ouroboros, the anxiety that accompanies the persistent metaphor of the narrator, who claims whatever “large” object he finds himself interested in, comes to a hasty end. So does the novel. This speaks to how the forces of “us” tarnish “their” archive. It’s not just time that corrodes the existing archive, but the forces of power that determine what to exclude and include.

The novel doesn’t take on the sanctimonious task of filling the gaps; instead, like its narrator, it poses questions that stir the reader. None of the characters in this book can effectively articulate themselves, despite their desire to do so. “I wish I were a sociologist or an academic,” claims Datt, adding that he wishes he knew how to “express [himself] better.” I Named My Sister Silence makes you tremble with its nonchalance; you feel as though you’re on the tip of a feather, and only later do you notice the paper cut.

I Named My Sister Silence, Manoj Rupda, translated from the Hindi by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Eka/Westland.