When I was 50 pages into Saharu Nusaiba Kannanari’s debut novel Chronicle of an Hour and a Half, I decided the opening line of my review would be about how incisively he wrote about the events that unfolded in an hour and a half over the course of 200 pages. As I moved ahead a few more pages, I wanted to ruminate on the mob culture in India and how it often turns murderous. Some more pages in, and I wanted to dwell on the feelings of the mother and the lover who are left with a permanent void in place of the man they both loved. After a dozen or so more pages, I wanted to contemplate the inherent and violent misogyny that constitutes a society’s “morality.” By the time I finished reading the book, I realised none of these starting points could adequately express the horror of what I had just read.

Though it takes no more than 90 minutes to rip several families apart, the lynching of a young Muslim man is the culmination of years – perhaps centuries – of moral policing that has been implemented by self-appointed custodians to keep transgressors in check. But what makes for a “transgressor”? Is it just the breaking of a set of rules that with time becomes enshrined as “culture”, or is it the act of violating a person’s privacy and quenching one’s primal, animalistic thirst for blood? When a mob sets itself into motion, perhaps the “transgressors” exist on both sides – the victim, who has supposedly not toed the line, and the punishers, who have decidedly taken the law into their own hands and turned it murderous.

The wife to every man

The novel opens with an unusual day in Areekode, Kerala – it has been raining incessantly for many hours and there’s no sign of the sun. The villagers are confined to their homes and even though electricity is erratic in this weather, cellular network connectivity seems unaffected by the unnatural torrent. Group chats on WhatsApp are blowing up on everyone’s phones with speculations about 40-something-old Reyhana and 25-year-old Burhan’s affair.

They are both Muslims, so faith is not an issue here. However, Reyhana is a mother of two teenage daughters and, worse still, her husband Sadique lives in Saudi Arabia for work reasons. The absence of her husband at home means she’s a wife to every man in the village. Therefore, the affair – that Sadique knows nothing about – is a personal matter of the menfolk. Sadique’s father and brothers have got a whiff of it and they’d have liked to settle the matter quietly with Burhan – after all, their family’s honour is at stake too thanks to Reyhana. Soon enough, they’ll learn that it is not so easy to contain a fire that is ignited and stoked by the male ego.

The women in Kannanari’s novel are not shy and demure. I suppose the author has drawn some inspiration from the women around him – they are outspoken in their hatred for their husbands and for taking on the reluctant role of a mother. While Reyhana’s daughters largely remain missing from her narrative, Nabeesumma (Burhan’s mother) views her sons as “limbs” she couldn’t cut off. She has grown to love her sons, but she berates them for being a burden on her just like her husband. Hers is a love born out of attachment.

On the other hand, Reyhana’s love for Burhan is out of choice – she sleeps with him because she wants to. She does not hesitate to make the first move despite being aware of the painfully restrictive circumstances they will find themselves in. Not to speak of the glaring age difference.

We also meet Panchami, Chinnan’s wife, who lashes out at him for eavesdropping and gossiping with the malicious intent of ruining lives. While Chinnan insists that it is a condition he cannot help, Panchami corrects him by telling him he’s simply an unthinking, callous person with no regard for right and wrong. Chinnan, who sets tongues wagging by first making mention of Burhan’s secret visits to Reyhana’s bedroom, admits plainly that “things have happened in the past because of my tongue.”

While Chinnan is overlooked for his transgressions – except by his wife – Reyhana is not granted the same luxury by the simple virtue of being a woman. Suddenly the men are pious, righteous, the most loyal stakeholders of monogamy. Besides the women in the village, only the Imam of the mosque can see the hypocrisy for what it is: “Righteous beyond religion. Muslim beyond Islam”.

Playing god

With every video and text message that inundates WhatsApp, children, the elderly, the wastrels and the bullies, are stirred afresh with the desire to avenge the great injustice that has befallen their community. As far as they are concerned, a whore should be the last person to sully the good name of their village. While their concerns are founded firmly in the teachings of Islam (they are great admirers of Saudi Arabia’s personal laws) and the well-being of their noble brother Sadique (he has also donated one of his kidneys to his unfaithful wife), or so they claim, they do not hesitate to vocalise using explicit language how they’d like to violate Reyhana if only to teach her a lesson. As one of the few rational men points out, the reason Burhan is being ostracised is not because of his indiscretions but because none of the other men had any woman show any active interest in them.

Even children who are ordered to stay home get caught in the frenzy. We meet Funny, a schoolboy, who out of frustration from being prevented from joining the mob resorts to watching porn on his mobile phone to relieve his “stress”. The constant visuals of middle-aged women engaging in sexual activities in these films strike up a primordial, carnal curiosity in him – who is this Reyhana and is she anything like the women he sees on the screen?

There is nothing funny about Funny’s spirit of enquiry. Even though Areekode is a small village, Reyhana and Burhan are nameless, faceless people for most. They might not identify the pair on the streets, but they are fully aware of their immoral bedroom activities. While some want to take a peek at the seductress and others want to measure the girth of her lover’s genitals, everyone is in agreement that both should be made to pay. Judgment day is upon the couple and the prying villagers have to helplessly play the role of god.

Kannanari sums up this herd – the mob, rather – mentality in one crisp line: “...In that silent consensus, the crowd was becoming a mob.” Funny becomes us as we see the final blow – quite literally – being dealt through his eyes. The excitement is too much. “Who can resist a mob?” he asks. The mob becomes a congregation of strangers and it cannot be said for sure how the weapons turn up or who makes the first strike. At the end of an hour and a half, Burhan is dead and Reyhana and Nabeesumma’s lives are reduced to this single, eternal event that was perhaps etched into their fates the moment Burhan was born.

A Chronicle of an Hour and a Half is a chronicle of a death foretold. The dozen are so voices that narrate the incident do not turn into a cacophony. The multiple narratives only highlight how religion and misogyny encourage seemingly decent people to engage in unproductive – even fatal – activities. Kannanari’s novel feels especially unsettling in light of Uttarakhand passing the Universal Civil Code, and the invasive eye of the state taking a permanent position in our bedrooms. The very idea of consent in a sexual relationship is subverted – the couple is no longer the sole participant in the act, moral and legal consent of all kinds have to be acquired to live and love freely. As the lines get increasingly blurred, so do our chances of turning into vigilantes. And before long, just like Funny, we’ll all be saying, “I was the mob.”

Chronicle of an Hour and a Half, Saharu Nusaiba Kannanari, Context/Westland.