In his formative years in a small Indian town, young Shubhankar Trivedi is the sole witness to an act of brutal violence. While communal riots tear apart his town, he witnesses a lynching that is to haunt his life forever, affecting him in ways that he cannot ever imagine.
One Small Voice
Penguin Random House UK
Santanu Bhattacharya’s novel begins on a rather clichéd note: though relatable in small measure, it relies on overused depictions of middle-class life in small-town India. There is the usual insistence on lineage, the caste pride of the Trivedi family, their preference for a male child, and the culture shock when Shubhankar attends a convent school. His parents are intimidated by teachers with foreign accents, his mother in particular by Miss Lucy’s pointed heels. Add to this the eyeroll-worthy speech about kids these days not knowing how easy they have it, delivered appropriately by naani, and you begin to feel put off. The story of the age-old structures of class and caste, supposed to have survived unchanged in small-town India, has been mined again and again by Indian English writers in recent times.
Fresh from the trauma of witnessing the lynching, young Shubhankar is shaken even further when he hears his family and relatives condoning the incident, justifying it. This mismatch between his own views and those of his relatives will ultimately play a pivotal role in his drifting apart, and seeking refuge in Mumbai, with its professed cosmopolitanism. Bhattacharya’s novel flits between Mumbai and his home town, jumping between the present and the past. The only constant in all this is Shubhankar’s memory of the lynching, which he cannot get over.
Bhattacharya’s narrative breaks away from the usual for the first time in his depiction of family life under curfew imposed by communal riots. Here, there is an astute juxtaposition of childish joy at school being closed untimely and the trauma of having witnessed what caused the sudden shutdown. As Shubhankar grows up, he bears the burden of being the sole keeper of the victim’s memory while the victim’s employer, the local people, and Shubhankar’s family conveniently erase him.
In vain he pleads with Masterji to talk about his assistant, but all Masterji remembers is a slacker, an employee who ran away to his village to escape his commitments.
Shubhankar goes to a local social worker to make inquiries; he is turned away again and admonished for trying to wake up past demons and make people uneasy. It is a curious conundrum: while Shubhankar cannot forget, the world around him cannot seem to remember.
The image of that one incident gets seared in Shubhankar’s psyche, shaping the rest of his life. Years later, he refuses to accept help from the communal-minded uncle, Suresh mausa, the one he blames the most, to get admission to prestigious colleges and instead forges his own precarious way ahead at a heavy cost. This marks the turning point in his life: Shubhankar comes into his own by exerting his will.
But it is not Shubhankar alone who is growing older, the nation is in the throes of adulthood too. Liberalisation has come about, and private coaching classes have sprung up to tackle entrance examinations, the default social ladder for 1990s’ India. Bhattacharya ties up these threads quite effectively when the girl Shubhankar fancies ends up being a victim of the psychological pressure of the rat race. Much later, in his Mumbai flat, Shubhankar wonders what happened to her twin. Bhattacharya brings out the attempt to bridge the chasm between generations when his mother, recognising his inner turmoil, offers to let him smoke inside the house as she worries about him being alone on the terrace.
Mumbai, a mood
Bhattacharya portrays Mumbai as a city of opposites: a place where people jostle all the time but each is alone in their own island. The bustle and madness of the city give Shubhankar the much-needed anonymity as he begins his first job. Lulled by the city to forget the baggage of familial identity and past tragedies, he hopes to lose the ghost of M here. In small ways, he tries to rebel against his ingrained orthodoxy by signing up for an apartment with his Muslim friend whom nobody wants as a tenant. But then the emptiness of living alone, a sense of not-belonging, start dogging him.
Shubhankar takes on the education of his household help’s son, egged on by this hollowness. That act does more for him than the son, and this is perhaps a common feature of urban Indian privilege—a persistent guilt and acts of expiation that are almost always not enough.
- Santanu Bhattacharya’s debut novel begins on a rather clichéd note about small-time India. Centred on a lynching the protagonist, Shubhankar, witnessed, it gathers stream gradually.
- As Shubhankar grows up, he bears the burden of being the sole keeper of the victim’s memory while the victim’s employer, the local people, and Shubhankar’s family conveniently erase him.
- The story is about how Shubhankar rebels against the orthodoxy his family represents. Bhattacharya’s finesse lies in complicating both stances by teasing out their finer details.
What is irksome in all this is Bhattacharya’s overperformance of Indianness. He references IPL, Golmaal movies, Tupperware lunch boxes, etc., in a lazy summation of the Indian zeitgeist, for, one suspects, a Western audience. He redeems himself somewhat in the portrayal of the mohalla and its conversations. Also relatable is the nuanced relationship between mother and son: when Shubhankar’s mother leaves Mumbai after four years of tending to him, they both begin to recover from each other.
Just as Shubhankar’s earlier life starts dissolving, religion rears its head again. His closest friend and flatmate finds god after he realises his parents lost everything in religious riots. The neighbours leave, shutting down their NGO, as the mohalla is slowly radicalised by a godman. Bhattacharya traces the repercussions of religious violence as both sides engage in an endless cycle of retaliation. To the simmering pot of religious tension, Bhattacharya throws in the crackling issue of class. While Shubhankar is saved in the first instance of violence by his religion, in the second, he is saved by his class. As the mob turns on immigrants, he stands untouched due to his class.
“Bhattacharya references IPL, Golmaal movies, Tupperware lunch boxes, etc., in a lazy summation of the Indian zeitgeist, for, one suspects, a Western audience.”
The conflict between Shubhankar’s hard-earned independence and the narrow ways of those around him continues throughout: Bhattacharya’s finesse lies in complicating both stances by teasing out their finer details. Several narratives emerge to explain why Shubhankar was targeted: was it because of his Muslim flatmate or his undertaking of the education of his help’s son? The incident leaves Shubhankar frustrated in his inability to control his narrative. In an ironic twist, his flatmate moves to study at Harvard Business School after working as an activist.
It is in the gathering of all these stories and the conclusion that Bhattacharya truly shines. In the end, he celebrates the human spirit and endurance, bestowing favours on his characters for surviving the worst. The most accurate summation of the struggle of middle-class India comes from one of the most unexceptional characters, the twin sister, who says that it is the unremarkableness of average people that keeps them going.
For Bhattacharya, it is the children who can free their parents from the curse of tradition and give them the courage to lead lives by their own example. When Shubhankar’s parents ultimately stand up to Suresh mausa, Bhattacharya shows there is hope for all—the older generation too is capable of change.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator.