If this story was not a story being read but a film being screened it would have had to start with the alert: “This film may be too disturbing for some viewers”. But it is a story being read and the book offers no such alerting advice.
Before one has realised it, The Fate of Butterflies, Nayantara Sahgal’s new novel, has captured you. It has got you in the claws of the human monsters it describes, in the jaws of the human beasts it portrays. It has disturbed you in a way that you cannot ever get over the “disturbance”.
Na kare Narayan! in Hindi and Khuda na khasta! in Hindustani both mean “god forbid!” Or, “May this not happen”. My thought, as I reached the story’s half-point, was “god, may none of this happen”. And as I neared its end I said to myself: “This novel should not have been written.” And also, I must admit, “Why am I reading this?”
But when I did come to the end of its last, 144th page, I knew the novel had to be written, written exactly as it has been, and had to be read, read exactly as I had read it.
That is, with the sense of being disturbed growing line by line, page by page. Disturbed into feeling in every pore of one’s being, in one’s mind and in the pit of one’s stomach that the story is no story but horrifying history, the history of the Middle Ages come alive. It is in novel form, The Second Coming, WB Yeats’s small but scorching poem with his “rough beast” slouching towards the Bethlehems on the sub-continent of India to be born.
The novel is a nightmare of a story. A nightmare not to be confounded with a “horror story”. That latter genre holds no horror for it is pure bakvas from start to finish and entertains with its unreal, surreal and violence. Nightmares are real. Not because they are about “real things” that happened, really, but because they are about things that can really happen, again, at levels, na kare Narayan, that will be worse, more hideous.
I will not unwrap the meaning or significance of the title and rob the reader of the experience of discovering its message. But to give a glimpse, as chat about a novel should: It is about a small set of characters that encounters bigotry, hate and the infliction of unspeakable terrors, physical and mental, on victims of that bigotry, that hatred. It is, more specifically, about the assault by Hindu majoritarian violence on the plural soul of India.
But it needs to be said at this point that if Nayantara Sahgal of India was, say, Nazira Khatun of Pakistan she would have written identically about the assault by Islamic majoritarian violence on minorities in that theocratic state. If she was a writer in Myanmar she would have written excoriatingly about the agonies of the Rohingya in that Buddhist state.
Murder, rape, vandalism visit innocents in this novel. And quite incredibly for its brevity the novel (which an earlier generation would have called a novella) becomes an epic in its spirit. It does that through its characters’ inner beings rather than their actions. The bared emotions of its protagonists are like the felled tree she describes having “ancient knotted roots”. Their loves are “intimacies within hand’s easy reach”, lesser relationships “a wide and varied acquaintance”. And destitution is “…humanity obstinately alive in the nowhere of displacement”.
Enough! Enough about the novel’s theme. The rest should be left to the reader to unravel. But the deft novelist’s story-telling style demands attention, needs describing. In this novel the author is at her absolute best as a creator of the right ambience for the narrative. She sets the atmosphere for her “plot” or her plaint very skilfully, delicately. No over-statement is permitted, nothing is said which would, in terms of fonts, have to appear in italics. Her words do not shout, her meanings do.
The most significant feature of this novel’s morphology is the autonomy of virtually each page. The reader may put her finger randomly on any page and find its tip lifting up, like the fine pollen on a butterfly wing, a description, an allusion that is integral to the story and yet completely stand-alone. And so we enter worlds within worlds – of textiles, garments, cuisines, spirits, etymology, history, biography. The Buddha, Ashoka, Shah Jahan, Napoleon, Martin Luther, Cecil Rhodes Gandhi, Eisenhower, Lumumba populate its imagination, stir that of the reader.
Having opened the book with fear, fear of the truth, one closes it with faith. Not in some great redemption but in the beauty of the butterfly’s doomed dance.