One day in 1992, an ambitious young freelance photographer takes a thermos flask filled with his late grandmother’s ashes along with a brand new zoom camera, purchased with aforementioned grandmother’s pension, and boards a train. His destination is Lucknow, where he is to photograph columns and domes for a magazine assignment, and from there he is to make his way to Benaras, where he intends to immerse his grandmother’s ashes in the Ganga. However, things don’t quite end up according to plan.

En route, during an unscheduled stop by the train on a bridge, the narrator ventures outside to take photographs, when he accidentally slips and falls into the river below. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself inside an old house in Lucknow’s Lalbagh neighborhood. The house is full of period furniture and antique windows. A glance at the newspaper reveals outdated headlines and an archaic masthead. It is, the narrator discovers, 4 August, 1942.

History, he is about to learn, is best viewed from up close, through a zoom lens. Of course, he also enjoys the blessing – or the curse – of hindsight. “I had more to look back on,” he says, “than everyone in 1943 put together.” Kesavan’s background as a scholar and professor of history informs this novel, which is part of the 1947 Partition Archive online.

The rediscovery

During my ongoing sabbatical in India, a visit to the Sunday book bazaar in Delhi’s Daryaganj yielded several treasures, including a signed hardcover edition of Mukul Kesavan’s debut novel Looking Through Glass. The inscription on the first page indicates that the book was originally a gift from a student to his professor at UC Berkeley. And now, in what seems like delicious irony, having rescued it from a dusty roadside pile in old Delhi, I hope to carry this back with me to the US in a few months. Like the narrator of this tale, perhaps the book is destined to travel widely and without much prior warning.

Once the narrator realises that a return to the future and to his prior life is impossible, he becomes an active – and not entirely unwilling – participant in the political and social events that follow. And these are many. After all, the years covered in the rest of the novel are 1942 to 1947. The events leading up to Independence and Partition form a dramatic backdrop against which the lives of the characters play out.

The unnamed narrator is preoccupied with his desire to somehow save his adopted Muslim family from the effects of Partition. No one in 1942 knows that he is from the future. They believe simply that he has amnesia. The narrator’s sense of impending doom contrasts sharply with the ignorance – or innocence – of those around him. “In less than five years, there would be murder, arson, rape, flight, migration, butchered trains, refugees, dispossession, enemy aliens…in short, Partition. And here they were, Ashrafi, Ammi, and Hassan, living in the lull thinking it the storm...”

The novel is densely packed with characters and events. There’s seldom a dull moment as the narrator rushes from one adventure to another. He gets implicated in a sabotage attempt on an incoming train, participates in a raid on a police station, rehearses for the role of Sita in a wrestling academy, rescues a young widow from a predatory filmmaker, and works as a waiter for the historic Cecil hotel. He travels from Lucknow to Benaras to Delhi to Shimla. The narrator is at once both observer and participant. As the title suggests, he looks at the world around him through glass. His view is framed at various times by either a window or a camera lens.

Before the Partition

Naturally, the question of communal politics plays an important part in a novel set in this particular period in the history of the subcontinent, with real events intermingling with fabricated incidents. One of the characters, Haasan, is actually a Hindu Brahmin who decides to dress as a Muslim and adopt a Muslim name in order to be safe in a state with “Muslim rebels on the rampage.” Ironically, he is mistaken for a Muslim and attacked by Hindus. The narrator on the other hand gets himself circumcised and later camps out in the Old Fort with his Muslim friends during the riots.

In one memorable scene at the Cecil, he waits on a special dinner guest – Jinnah. After he serves him his soup and chicken – but no pork or wine, much to his disappointment – the narrator, bewildered by the fact that he and the Qaid-i-Azam are now contemporaries, asks him a presumptuous question: “Mr Jinnah, sir, do you really want the country partitioned?”

The Muslim question has both political and personal resonance in this story. The Muslim members of Congress who were committed to a “free and united” India “disappeared” on the eve of the Quit India movement, when the Congress decided to ignore their objections to it. Kesavan manifests this disappearance literally, through the character of Masroor who gets slammed into the side of a truck and flattened into a one-dimensional recruiting poster for the army. It’s only later that we learn what really happened to him and the others. “Like a bunch of yogis fired by the power of the mind, they concentrated on the Hindu-Muslim problem and made it vanish. Along with the problem, said Masroor, we vanished as well.”

Beyond reality

While the entire narrative features post-modern elements, it is this section where magical realism is in full flight.

“The degree of disappearance was in inverse proportion to the victim’s commitment to the Congress. Some just became lighter skinned which they didn’t mind. Others, more involved with the party, sometimes became translucent. With Inayat Sahib, a veteran of the great Khilafat campaign, who had grown away from the Congress after the Kanpur riot, the most that happened was during a meeting of the Municipal Board he found himself completely naked in the middle of an argument…The more committed they were, the less they left behind.”

One merely leaves behind his name, Salman, in the pages of A Passage to India, while his brother Saleem is transcribed into a corner of the day’s cartoon in the newspaper he was subbing. The names of the brothers might be a coincidence, but they hark back to the book that influenced many that followed: Midnight’s Children.

A memorable cast

The political events are quite densely packed into this novel. If it hadn’t been for the memorable and idiosyncratic characters, it might have become a little dry. But fortunately, the people whom we – along with the narrator – get to know over time relieve the tedium of politics. The older women in particular are strong-willed and active. The narrator’s grandmother, who can be blamed for setting off this entire chain of events in the first place, runs a shelter for fallen women. Ammi, the matriarch of the Lalbagh family, edits a women’s magazine, Khatoon, from her zenana. Instead of predictable domestic topics like recipes or beauty tips, the magazine recounts adventures such as imaginary travels around the world.

Even the minor characters, such as Chaubey, the narrator’s cohort in the wrestling academy who is recruited to act out the Kama Sutra for a budget film adaptation, and Intezaar, Ammi’s long-lost husband who has acquired his melancholic nickname because everyone’s been waiting for him, are distinctive and endearing.

This might explain why the narrator, a little inexplicably, never really seems to think of his parents or friends from his “real” life or mourn their absence from his life very much. For him and for the sceptics among us, Ammi offers this wise and comforting thought: “You want to live in the future like the rest of them…Why should you want to wreck the only world you have for some day after tomorrow.”

Oindrila Mukherjee tweets here.