Realism is dead. The times in which we live, audacious as they are, drove the final nail in its coffin.

A novel is often compared to a mirror thrown up at society. Still, I have always thought of it, as James Wood says, as “an attentive host” always catering to the guests’ needs; in the process, a novel can “begin to sound like its guests.”

There was a time – in what seems like another life – when we experienced the world first-hand. People touched, communicated face-to-face, explored their surroundings by being physically present. After 180+ days spent within four walls, seeing the outside world through the camera lens of television news and Instagram stories, our new reality is that we are boxed in. And, with no end in sight, our future looks increasingly isolated with little room for an experiential life.

In that context, The Wall, Gautam Bhatia’s ambitious debut speculative fiction novel, is the new realism.

The story so far

The Wall is set in an unknown world, in a city called Sumer, enclosed by an unscalable wall for centuries. Nothing penetrates the enclosure – neither people nor ideas. Controlled by martial law imposed by a group called Shoortans (the word for warriors in Punjabi), the city lumbers on with no knowledge of its history but the one doled out by the elite government. Manuscripts or philosophies that contradict the Shoortans’ version of events remain locked away out of sight, their contents never to be revealed for fear of swift punishment.

There was, at some point, a rebellion, but the movement was swiftly and cruelly eradicated. Centuries into their confinement, Sumer’s citizens – much like caged birds that have forgotten how to fly – have grown accustomed to having just enough.

Just enough food so they don’t starve; just enough freedom of movement so they aren’t forced to rebel; only enough information so they have a semblance of history on which to rely; just enough rules so that everyone knows where they stand in the social hierarchy. Most people, as evidenced by real-time events across the globe, enjoy this certainty that comes with relinquishing free will. Most, but not all.

The novel follows Mithila, who hungers for new experiences. Aided by a group of like-minded young adults, our protagonist begins her journey to cross the boundaries of Sumer. The city’s population and its governing council, predictably, try to thwart her attempts to look beyond the wall.

Predictably, because there’s news every day of people’s willingness to destroy anything that looks beyond the status quo. This is rooted in reality. Every four years, incompetent but incumbent leaders are re-elected by an over-indulged minority that does not want to give up its privilege. State and central authorities squash the voices of students and shoot indigenous folk who fight for their homes. Unconstitutional, draconian laws are used to silence opposition by throwing them in prisons from where their objections will never reach the masses. Those who seek change and challenge the status quo are inevitably the same people who have been, or feel, wronged by the systems in place.

Mithila’s motivation to journey beyond Sumer’s suffocating confines are clear from the first page. Her brother dreamed of crossing the wall and of the wonders he might experience on the other side. In his attempt to catch a glimpse of what lies there, Garuda is killed and buried, along with all hope, in a dark cave.

From the moment of her brother’s death, Mithila has one goal: to complete the journey across the wall. She is determined to see a different world and to hear ideas that have been hidden from Sumer’s citizens for centuries. In short, to make sure her sibling’s death was not without purpose.

The built world and its inhabitants

Bhatia’s writing voice has been remarkably self-assured even before he forayed into fiction. His books on free speech and constitutional laws are the works of a man who loves to learn and analyse – and is, at his core, optimistic about human nature.

The Wall is not different in this respect. Despite its dystopian setting, Mithila and her cohort represent an idealist hope that the course of the future will be changed by youths. It is a refreshing and much needed perspective as we live in bleak times where “the world is ending” seems less and less like prophecies of madmen and psychics.

The novel pulls in readers with its thoughtful and detailed world-building. Without looking at the map appendix, I saw Sumer in my mind’s eye – both from the sky and intimately through Mithila’s description of the city’s circles and neighbourhoods. It helped to know that Sumer is the name of a Persian long-lost town, now in present-day Iraq. The name is not the only ode to Persian culture within the novel, though.

The pacing and lucidity of the text means that the reader’s heart will beat faster when Mithila is in trouble (which is often), and they will tear up when she is emotional (which happens just as frequently.)

In defiance of current trends of “own voice writing” – women written by women, queer characters written by queer folk – Bhatia chose to inhabit a lesbian’s mind. To pick a queer protagonist can be tricky, especially for a CISHET male who will likely never know the daily humiliation and hostility a lesbian woman faces. Bhatia approaches this problem with what can only be called an empathetic heart that looks beyond his personal experience.

Mithila’s sexuality is almost incidental, evoking no more questions from her father or other citizens of Sumer than they’d ask about her having two arms and two legs. The descriptions of her emotions for her girlfriend Rama are no different from those of a heterosexual person’s feelings for their partners and lovers.

Telling, showing

The novel is hobbled by an over-reliance on dialogue, however, which is particularly surprising as science-fiction and speculative fiction rely more on the action. Bhatia sacrifices showing in favour of telling – literally. His characters spoon-feed the reader with Sumer’s history and culture, their own feelings and motivations, with their dialogue. Four hundred and twenty pages later, I don’t know very well what Mithila looks like.

My desire to know more about Mithila is heightened by the fact that I know nearly nothing about the other characters in the novel. So focused was Bhatia on his protagonist that he neglected to flesh out critical players like Rama, Taraf, Chandra and others. Even after reading the novel twice, I’m yet to fathom why they want to help Mithila, other than a vague sense of youthful defiance and curiosity. In a way, Bhatia’s focus on world-building comes at the cost of character-building.

Already a prolific legal scholar, Bhatia has two pages on social media – one dedicated to his legal work and another to books. This is an apparent attempt to compartmentalise his two interests. But it is hard to separate an author’s own experiences and beliefs from their writing. The Wall, though fictional, is the rightful offspring of his previous books like Offend, Shock, Disturb! and The Transformative Constitution. The key themes of equality, hope, thirst for knowledge, and freedom run through all his work.

The Wall is the product of an accomplished, learned mind which hungers – just like Mithila herself – for knowledge and for freedom in the real sense of the word, mind and body. The book depicts how the absurd – a city that allows no one in and where imagination is akin to crime – becomes acceptable when no other options present themselves. A fine debut.

The Wall

The Wall, Gautam Bhatia, HarperCollins India.