Book review

The fictional young men and women of Muzaffarnagar bring home the facts beyond the headlines

Tanuj Solanki’s ‘Diwali in Muzaffarnagar’ features a cast of characters we have met, but do not know.

Muzaffarnagar is the city of no one’s dreams. Where communal tension simmers, threatening to devastate. Where young women and young men must not be spotted too close together. Where violence is a common way to settle matters. Its young inhabitants know well that to get somewhere, you must get away.

Tanuj Solanki centres his short story collection, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, in this city of grit and grime, where young men and women make their way in and out of its chaotic streets, carrying within them a little bit of this town even as they bask in the privileges of a metropolis, a safe distance away.

The city as the centrepiece of a book – in fiction or nonfiction – is an enormously satisfying route to travel to its heart through familiar and unfamiliar ways. Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, though fiction, throbs with an urgent, topical voice, given the fact that the northern city only a few hours away from India’s capital is notorious for disturbing incidents of violence and communal unrest, particularly the riots of 2013, where over 60 people died and more than half a lakh were displaced, and dozens of women sexually violated.

Solanki goes beyond those headlines to use violence as a tool to unspool the fabric of the city. This authentic lived-in small-town world is pitched sharply, detailing its contours, its people and their motivations as an insider would. He doesn’t paint it all black, though, and nor does he make it bleak. The set-up is like life itself, for anyone, anywhere: a delicate balance of lightness and heaviness, resilience being the only escape route out of the latter, as one hobbles back to the former.

A scooter knocked down to the ground marks the cover of the book, a recurring image that will tie and untie many of its relationships. Road accidents and skirmishes are a regular facet of life, as brashness and mobility clash in a town struggling to accommodate a changing context, not fully willing to keep up with the world outside of it. The first-person narrative Solanki employs in many of the stories keeps the voice intimate and raw, and as the narrator changes from story to story, we’re treated to a variety of perspectives: women and men, the ones who got away and the ones who didn’t. Also, the ones who came back. Beyond the communal layers, Solanki suffuses his stories with many other themes of our times: feminism, gender roles, child sexual abuse, violence, patriarchy, caring for the elderly, generational differences, small-town vs the megapolis.

His characters are a certain “type”. Millennials, largely, given to a certain degree of liberal values and professional ambitions, yet rooted to a particular form of middle-class existence. At times, this is out of place in a small-town milieu, but sometimes, the setting doesn’t come in the way.

Tarun

In the title story, which was previously published as “Muzaffarnagar Diwali” in The Caravan, we meet this Mumbai-dweller, who was also the protagonist of Solanki’s moody debut novel, Neon Noon. In this story, while visiting his hometown on the occasion of Diwali, Tarun, somewhat heartbroken about his breakup with his French girlfriend, learns that his brother and his friend are in trouble, having hit a motorbike in a Muslim village in the outskirts of the city.

“The idea of going to my brother’s rescue alone did cross my mind. But I was not going to be the one to fight on the road. And what if the motorbike guy turned out to be a Muslim? This was Muzaffarnagar. Riot-prone-piece-of-shit-town.” Tarun, the “suave brother who had extricated himself from the shithole that is Muzaffarnagar” reacts to the goings-on within his home with a big-city aloofness, recognising his family’s struggles but not being able to do much other than offering some financial help.

Daanish

High-schooler Saransh is gifted a Honda Activa so he so can get to his tuitions faster than he does on his cycle, in a story (“My Friend Daanish”) that is less about him than its is about his cool, confident Muslim friend whom he hesitates to introduce to his parents. After all, boys barely out of their teens are groomed to stay away from colonies that are not inhabited by people of their own religion.

“Once Mummy was done with her rituals, Papa and I went for a ride. I drove the scooter in the tiny lanes of Jat Colony. The drive was incident-fee, except for the one time when a cow’s tail brushed against the headlight. This happened because some of the houses in the colony had mini-cowsheds built right on the road, and manoeuvring the scooter sometimes required going rather close to a tethered cow’s rear…It was when I was parking the scooter in our front yard that papa said, ‘Just don’t do anything stupid with it.’ ‘Like riding over bumpy places? Potholed roads? Over sand?’ I asked, just to be funny. ‘You know what I mean,’ Papa grunted.”

Gunjan

What will a 30-year-old woman living a luxurious life with a handsomely rich, older man in Delhi do when she’s forced to return to Muzaffarnagar’s difficult ways? Delhi’s been hostile enough to toughen her up, “a Bridget Jones in a rapacious city.” The big city life is perhaps not all that it is made up to be. “Compassionate Grounds” follows Gunjan’s journey from Muzaffarnagar to Delhi, and then back to where she began, as she picks up the pieces of her government-employee father’s life to deal with the aftermath of his untimely demise.

Taruna and Ankush

“Good People”, one of the longer stories from the collection, in particular, seems effortlessly crafted, but packs a real punch. What starts of as a picture of Taruna and Ankush’s marital harmony in a 600-square-foot Mumbai home, with flashbacks to their first meeting, courtship, wedding and honeymoon, runs into a series of uncomfortable truths that tests their relationship in situations readers could not have foreseen. Solanki draws out their personalities gently – this new-age couple who cooks together – but scratches many wounds.

How progressive are those who claim they are progressive? How unpredictable is the mind, when pushed to a certain limit? It’s hard to swallow that we are capable of thinking the unthinkable – wishing people dead, willing to resort to great crimes to protect ourselves, ready to lash out at loved ones in unforgivable ways. From Diwali, we move to Holi, as the couple journeys to Taruna’s parents’ home in Delhi for the festival, and to Ankush’s mother’s home in Muzaffarnagar, even as a plethora of prejudices and stereotypes rush to the surface.

The others

Many of them make a second appearance through the collection, as their older, younger selves. This is effective: though the stories are only peripherally linked, it creates a sense of wholeness, in the mould of a novel. Two of the stories – “Reasonable Limits” and “The Mechanics of Silence” are unconventional in form, escaping to mildly different tangents.

To Solanki’s credit, even as he writes about serious matters and unglamorous details of daily life – shitting and peeing, for instance – his writing is constantly fresh and fantastic, while making ordinary characters immensely likeable and relatable, in their winning traits and many flaws. These are engrossing stories that do not have a definite end. A lot of peeling of layers, yes, till we are left with raw thoughts with no filter, ones that usually go acknowledged, pushed to the back of the mind or lost in everyday chaos. Here, they become striking once again.

Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, Tanuj Solanki, HarperCollins India.

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