Ira Singh’s second novel, Pilgrimage tells the story of Monica or Mona, who belongs to western Uttar Pradesh, through three phases of her life and the events that contributed to making her who she is. The three sections, titled “Pilgrimage”, “Transgressions” and “Punishment” take us on a journey through her life in reverse. In this manner, the book allows us to unearth how the life of a woman from the 1980s to present-day India impacts and transforms her existence.

The first section is told in a third person facts-of-the-matter kind of narrative. The second one is is in the first person, with Mona getting the space to shape her own identity in her early twenties, when she lived exactly as she wanted to. The third section is told in the second person, recalling Mona’s childhood and adolescence, when she had little control over the decisions that affected her life. Through the protagonist seen from three perspectives, the novel questions desire and its suppression, and the ripples this sends across time.

How the triptych works

“Pilgrimage”, set in the present, spans the events of a single day as Mona and her family try to take her gravely ill father to the hospital amidst the rush and madness of the kanwariya season, when Hindu pilgrims take over the streets. “Transgressions” explores Mona’s life as a research scholar at the University of Delhi, where she falls in love with Ajay, a drug addict who participating in her case studies. And “Punishment” follows her transition from a child to a young adult and how life in small-town India leads to a suppression of one’s desires.

Singh captures three vast worlds in this short novel. Her crisp sentences sweep you into the atmosphere, the mood, and the lifelines of the characters within a few pages. She makes you recall your own childhood – if you had a middle-class Indian childhood, that is – complete with its idle afternoons, the discussions in hushed tones of changes in one’s body through adolescence, and the vast distances between the belief systems of two different generations. The three completely different yet strong settings for different stages of the protagonist’s life allow us to peel the layers of this character, who could be any young woman from any district across the length and breadth of this country.

Many Delhi residents, who have been witnessing the madness of the kanwariya season for a number of years, watched an incident on their phones this year. The widely-circulated video showed the kanwariyas violently demolishing a car because it had apparently brushed against one of them. The same tension looms over the first section, making one wonder if the ambulance will meet the same fate as the car.

Singh’s astute observations on the uncertain times we are living in gain an added layer when we read the other sections. She explores how Whatsapp forwards pave the way for vigilantism, which dwells on the brink of fanaticism. She does not simply comment on the country’s progress towards fanatic zeal, she also traces its growth though the ’80s and the ’90s before culminating the current state of affairs.

A history of women’s independence

This is dovetailed with Singh’s exploration of the suffocation of a woman’s independence in a country changing rapidly from the 1980s to 2018. According to “Pilgrimage”, to examine the nature of hate which spreads quickly through social media, one must look at the anxieties of middle-class India, its patriarchal set up and toxic masculinity – which appeared in the ’70s with the image of the “Angry Young Man” in films like Zanjeer and Deewaar. What could all this have done to a young woman growing up through these years? Like Mona, she lives on small mercies, such as this one: “My parents have not sent any threats on Diwali, only some mithai”.

The novel has a deceptively comforting impact, for underneath, it scratches away at the surface of today’s middle class till it reaches the core, and then displaying the fallouts – of having middling incomes but aspiring to luxuries, and yet being unable accept or absorb those luxuries because of the guilt induced by faith, religion, rituals, and social conventions passed on down the generations.

Ultimately, we see in the novel, it is the powerless minority that becomes the victim of such middle-class rigidities – the ambulance driver, the junkie, the girl-child, the gay man in rural UP in the ’80s India. The ripple effect of modern India’s past is examined in reverse order as the novel opens with the after-effect and then returns to scan the heart of the rotten structure.

Pilgrimage moves you like, say, Ruskin Bond’s Delhi Is Not Far, but unlike Bond’s mellifluous prose, Singh’s writing stings us with its sharp observations, bringing forth dormant memories of our small town lives. Like Mohsin Hamid, Singh operates with the “less is more” school of writing. She encapsulates entire worlds within a few short paragraphs. She also slips contemporary songs into several scenes of the second section, ranging from Led Zepplin’s All of My Love to Kishore Kumar’s Ye Shaam Mastani. And, like JJ Cale’s Magnolia, which Mona hums on a Mudrika ride through Delhi’s Ring Road, Singh’s novel also turns intoxicating in the process.

Pilgrimage, Ira Singh, Speaking Tiger Books.