Saharu Nusaiba Kannanari’s debut novel, Chronicle of an Hour and a Half, imagines the worst of mob culture, moral policing, and misogyny. Set in Areekode, Kerala – which is also where the author lives – a rumour of an illicit affair takes on a life of its own, fuelled by feverish, relentless WhatsApp messages. As chaos ensues, the small town erupts into violence and a mob takes to the street, baying for blood.

Kannanari employs the voices of a dozen or so characters to tell the story of how loose tongues, callous gossiping, and brute machismo can prove deadly even for two adults engaged in a consensual relationship. The novel forces us to consider how “mobs” are made and what entices “regular” people to turn murderous.

In an interview with Scroll, the author talked about the cultures that allow such heinous crimes, the writers who made him one, and why political correctness as a writer will never bother him. Excerpts from the interview:

On the very first page, we encounter an interesting phrase. Nabeesumma says, “...He gave me sons.” When it is commonly the other way around. Tell us about making this unusual choice – especially, distancing the mother from her child at the very beginning.
This is correct. In fact, the inaugural monologue by Nabeesumma opens both its first and second paragraphs with more or less the same phrase. Your question refers to the second paragraph, where she repeats the phrase in the first by replacing the “children” with “sons”. The opening sentence of the novel, considered in its entirety, establishes Nabeesumma’s relationship with God, her husband whom she compares to God, and her five children – the seven “men”, to call them that, by whom she feels abandoned, from whom she feels emotionally estranged, and to whom she is helplessly bound. Fate, she calls it. This is true to the largest extent for Reyhana as well who, unlike Nabeesumma, rebels against this “helplessness” which keeps Nabeesumma chained by resorting to what Nabokov called in his lecture on Madam Bovary “the most conventional way of rising above the conventional” – namely, adultery.

You situated your novel in your hometown Areekode, which seems like a small, tight-knit community. Were you greatly influenced by those around you when you were creating your characters?
No, I wasn’t.

But are there any similar real-life incidents that made an impact on you?
There was an incident of mob lynching over an extramarital affair near the town of Mukkam in Calicut district, which happened in 2010 or 2011. One character does refer to this incident in the novel. I don’t know the details of the case but, of course, I remembered the incident.

Honour killings and mob lynchings are atrocities usually associated with North India and in contrast, Kerala is often seen as one of the most progressive states in the country. Your novel challenges this notion. Do you feel crimes like these in Kerala are often whitewashed? If yes, why did you feel the need to counter this narrative?
Mob lynching is a real rarity in Kerala but not honour killings, or murders over extramarital affairs in general. My understanding is that even in North India, the mob lynching phenomenon is political and religious in nature. I don’t suppose honour killings by mobs are as such frequent in the north if, maybe, not non-existent. In other words, whatever is true of north India is equally true of Kerala as well so far as caste and misogyny goes. We are in this together, regardless of the preposterous differences in the social and economic indices. This is my understanding.

At the outset, it might seem odd that there are a dozen or so voices that tell the story of a 90-minute incident but when one reads the book the format makes complete sense. What is it about multi-voice narratives that appeal to you? I also feel it’s a great way to showcase the many thoughts and counterthoughts a writer – and a person – can embody.
Each novel comes with its own structure. In this case, of course, the influence of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was certainly as natural a reason as the narrative demands of the story, which is not interested in the victim of the mob violence at all. Multiple voices served the twin purposes of telling the central story of mob lynching and, secondly, telling it through a host of narrators whose familial lives and psychological make-up also come to the reader’s light in flashes rather than detailed descriptions. Which is why some of them may look like MacGuffin even though they are, by design, only as much instrumental in moving the plot forward as they are in offering a personal perspective on what’s unfolding.

This is of course a very sensitive issue that you tackle in the novel, yet, I can’t say it’s always “politically correct”. In the sense that you give voice to certain rape fantasies, a child indulging in pornographic films, et cetera. As a debutant, does this “incorrectness” worry you?
Political incorrectness does not worry me neither as a debutant nor it will worry me as a retiree. To a novelist, every possible human experience is a representative experience because every human being is a representative of the species, howsoever laudable or abominable she is or his actions are. Which is why Cormac McCarthy named his third book “The Child of God”, a short novel with a deeply troubled and troubling and utterly abominable protagonist named Lester Ballard. The purpose of imaginative literature is to engage and reflect on the human condition in all its ordinary and extreme complexities and political correctness is antithetical to this primary responsibility of the novelist. A novelist must actively resist correctness and that is the only way to be honest with one’s characters. The author must obsessively exile or exorcise himself/herself from the novel. In a letter to a friend Flannery O’Connor, while reflecting on how much an author should denude herself on the pages of the novel, said that “everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you.” I think correctness is antithetical to that fine instruction.

Did you study creative writing? When did you know you wanted to write?
No, I did not study writing, nor was I a student of literature at a university. Don Delillo said that he became a writer by “hardworking” at not being anything else. When I read that, I felt that he was instructing me about the only way one could become a writer. I quit my studies and began hardworking at not being anything other than a writer. And I had to learn everything from scratch, for long and alone, and since I was a Malayalam medium student, this “everything” included the English language, too.

Who are the writers you look up to? And what kind of books does one have to read to write something like Chronicle of an Hour and a Half?
You mean what to read to become a novelist? The great English Paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, in his Thinking About Children, said that “each step forward that we make in the science of psychology enables us to see more in Shakespeare’s plays, just as it enables us to talk less foolishly about human nature.” So read Shakespeare. Aside from the other greats like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Melville, Joyce and Borges, try reading the likes of Heinrich von Kleist, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor and Saadat Hasan Manto. I am a great admirer of 20th-century American literature. Faulkner, Pynchon, Roth, Doctorow, Gaddis, Coover, McCarthy and Delillo are some of my major favourites.

Also read:
‘Chronicle of an Hour and a Half’: What if I become the mob?