Annie Zaidi’s Prelude to a Riot is a painful read, not because of the prose, which is exquisite, nor the narrative, which never flags, but because it invokes the troubling subject that is closest today to any sympathetic Indian heart and chafes against it continually. Zaidi gives us a story of our times, where love and harmony are being turned into hatred and strife, and old friendships lie in tatters, with only very few strong souls trying to hold together the strings of sanctioned relationships.

What distinguishes this immediately affecting, often harrowing, and sometimes hopeful novel from contemporary reportage or even narrative journalism on the state of our society is the sensitive understanding it brings to the various types of individuals to be found in the Indian milieu today. The prophetic old man of the narrative, Dada, expresses this best, when he says that “stories and poems… [books, really] give you knowledge of people’s hearts, which is the most precious knowledge of all.” Zaidi seems to have looked into the hearts of many of our national types on our behalf and given us a peek into them, in what may well be her tour de force to date.

Soliloquies in many voices

The novel is set in a nameless town in South India, presumably in the Kodava belt, with its Hindu upper-caste natives having the (originally-colonial) licence to carry guns without having to apply for individual permits. Most chapters are soliloquies by different characters, who vary in age from teenagers to nonagenarians, and come from different classes, but mainly from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds.

These reminiscences illustrate various social concerns. Communal mobilisation is in full swing with a “Self-Respect Forum” speaking of the threat to the majority “native” community from the illegal migrant labour in the plantation society, which is nonetheless exploited for cheap wages by the owners.

A youth meets a tragic end for being seen with the daughter of his master. A national survey to separate the wheat from the chaff, the native from the infiltrator, is being proposed. A young girl is forcefully fed pork at school by her peers, including her friends. Her brother senses “it” coming for his community. His deep friendships from college with those not from his community can barely survive.

A college romance that was consummated in marriage transcending caste cannot survive the cooption of the husband into a homogenous “Us” to fight “Them”, as the wife refuses these easy binaries. Other romances cannot find social sanction due to social differences. Women are often more sensitive and amenable to difference, as men, especially the dominant, refuse to accept the other, and the most strongly othered here is none other than the Muslim.

Fear and reason

To a middle-class reader from a Muslim background, such feelings as of the young middle-class Abu being unable to see a long- or even a medium-term future for himself in India, or at least his corner of it, in this moment, are a palpable reality. Abu voices another chilling fear, one among many of Zaidi’s poignant lines, about dismissing the need for the permission to act over the property and the body of the minority: “That’s the thing, isn’t it? To not have to ask. It means you don’t have a right to say no.”

For the liberal and the intellectual, the voice of the history teacher, Garuda, is the critical voice of much-required reason in India today, educating his students about the need to think beyond the given, the inherited, the “set syllabus.” Among the many lessons he seeks to impart, he reasserts how temple demolition of the past was not simply motivated by adversarial religious zeal, but often by the show of power by contesting kings of even the same religion. True education may still play a valuable social role, and seems to threaten power-hungry authority.

Dada, the old benign patriarch, the minority citizen, staunchly committed to his place, his soil, a farmer who brings forth life from the earth through his sweat, despite being a viable candidate for anti-nationalism, becomes the source of hope with his fine mettle. He cannot be convinced by his grandson Abu to migrate, and instead dreams of a different future for himself and his nation. Is such hope wishful, Romantic, or is this the positive path of endeavour that we need?

Read Prelude of a Riot if you have even the least curiosity to find out how these characters, stand-ins for those you may not talk to, your neighbour, your classmate, your servant, your master, your friend, the friend you lost over time because of diverging political leanings or what they ate, your enemy, and your colleague, especially of the other of India’s two major religious communities, think. Because, “you cannot easily be separated from your neighbour,” and only when you find out about them, might you be whole, or else, “within your own body, you will find the germs of sundering.”

Maaz Bin Bilal is the author of Ghazalnama and the translator of The Sixth River. He teaches literature at the liberal arts school of Jindal Global University.