Reality, from the margins

Published : Oct 16, 2013 12:30 IST

Anees Salim

Anees Salim

T has been some time since the subcontinental English fiction came of age and began to grapple with Indian history and reality with a confidence and an artistry one seldom comes across in its early practitioners. This new confidence that one first found in writers such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh marks many of the new writers who do not mind taking the risks involved in portraying Indian rural reality in English: the risk of exoticisation, of the work looking like an inadequate translation, of the difficulty in expressing in English the nuances of rustic life and speech. And, looking at the result, one can well say it has not been a vain adventure: we now have a corpus of such fiction that can legitimately claim to be as much Indian as fiction written in the languages whose losses in texture are compensated to a great extent by the intimate insight into the lives and minds of the men and women who people their ably painted landscapes.

I have in front of me two such novels: Vanity Bagh by Anees Salim and Foreign by Sonora Jha. While the former is Anees’ second novel, the latter is Sonora’s debut work. They are written from very different points of view: the first with a comic detachment and the second with moving concern; yet the reality they portray is genuinely contemporary and their novels deal in different ways with the marginalised sections of the Indian society, Vanity Bagh with a group of poor young men living in a north Indian mohalla named Vanity Bagh and Foreign (I should say I am not happy with the title that sounds trite and popish considering the grave reality being portrayed in the novel) with the peasants living (and dying) in utter despair in the village of Dhanpur in Maharashtra.

A mix of Basheer and Kafka The most fascinating aspect of Vanity Bagh (Picador India, 2013) is its dark comic tone—a tone that reminds me of Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, the famous Malayalam fiction writer—used by the narrator Imran Jabbari even though he himself is in jail for a terrorist act he unknowingly got involved in. There is a Kafkaesque acceptance of the paradox here, like that of, say, Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis wanting to sleep forgetting the fun even when he has been transformed into a monstrous bug or of Joseph K of The Trial who undergoes a trial for a crime he does not even know about in bewildered dispassion. It is not unlike a mock-court game turning into a serious nightmarish trial when the traveller whose car breaks down is invited by a former judge to a dinner and a game in A Dangerous Game , that singular masterpiece by the Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt. But the novel does not make any claims to being a modern existentialist work as the reality it deals with is too factual in the Indian situation where dozens of innocent Muslims have been charged with crimes they never even knew about, some of them having been exonerated midway while the others still languish in prisons.

The novel works through a series of flashbacks, in this case episodes being “read” by Imran Jabbari, the wrongly incarcerated youth, on vacant pages in the notebooks he makes in the “Book Rom” of his prison that come alive with his own tale when he stares at them long enough. In an early evening of a listless monsoon in 2007, Imran with his friends had formed a group called “5 ½ Men” that would, following the footsteps of the legendary Abu Hathim—Vanity Bagh’s ageing don who had made his mark early in life, having been booked for murder at the age of nineteen and ranked as one of the top terrors of Mangobagh, that has a fluid border with Vanity Bagh, when he was hardly twenty-one—undertake perilous missions for excitement as well as for money. The idea had been mooted by Zulfikar—Abu Hathim was his mother’s first cousin—and immediately supported by Zia and followed by Imran, Jinnah and others in the friends’ group. Yahya was the half-man in the group as he was born dumb. (Here is a sample of the writer’s style: “But he was not dumb dumb, he was smart dumb. When the almighty pressed the mute button on him at the assembly line, he gave Yahya something exceptional in damages, and rolled him out into the noisy world with a set of remarkably big ears that heard things no one else did: ants marching across asbestos roofs, beetles sneezing, goats imitating radio jingles, rain clouds preparing to dissolve into a shower over the city and even the squeal of the public lavatory door as the ghost of Iskander, a young man who died from having too much fake cocaine, went in to pee.”) All of the boys had Pakistani names and the mohalla itself had been nicknamed “Little Pakistan” by the people of Mehendi, a Hindu neighbourhood feared and hated alike by the residents of Vanity Bagh.

The gang begins with seemingly innocuous missions like tracking down a second-hand Toyota Corolla that the pawnbroker Nawas Sheriff had financed and had had no trace of his client afterwards. The gang had to seize the car by force or deceit and bring it to the recovery yard behind the Purana Masjid kabristan. The only difficulty was they had to pass through enemy territory: of Mehendi, the Hindu colony. So they carried six Hindu names and a small tool kit necessary for the operation. Imran was C. Ganesh from 2nd Street, Raja Mata Nagar. Despite small scares on the way, they completed that operation successfully. It was sometime later that a stranger called Qadir contacted them and gave them another offer. The man looked like a crook and hence the gang had their suspicions, but ultimately they undertook the mission, again seemingly innocent: they had to ride some scooters to the addresses Qadir would provide them, park them at specified places and just walk away. Qadir said it was gold business; they would be carrying gold bars hidden in the scooters. It was as simple as valet parking sans uniform. The young men knew they were carrying bombs only when they saw the news on the television: there were explosions in every place they had parked the scooters. That was how 11/11 happened and Imran and friends had to spend time in jail.

What makes the novel entertaining is not the story itself, but the hilarious way it has been narrated as well as the presence of several fascinating characters—like Shoukath the shair (poet) who plagiarises anyone from Ghalib to Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot (“November is the coolest month/ Flowers are lilac and memories are green”)—and funny episodes—like Imran’s vain love for Benazir, Mir Sahib’s daughter, or his lying to the Workshop man that there is a cache of bombs buried under a willow tree in Vanity Bagh while it actually was the dead body of Sinbad, Abu Hathim Saheb’s seven-year-old son—that spice up Imran’s memoir. Imran also has a penchant for rating and ranking everything and of quoting people—from Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Tommy Lee Jones to the mad woman in the village, with their years in brackets (they could be quite absurd, like “Ahhhhhhhh”—Zia ul-Haque, 1984-2012) that, even while a bit overdone, contributes a lot to the humour that sustains the reader’s interest. Just to cite one example:

Amnesia said hello to me.

I said I don’t remember you. So off

he went

—Shair Shoukath (1928-2010)

Why don’t you just cut me into

little pieces

And feed me to the street dogs?

—Professor Suleiman Ilahi

(1949- )

Me too, please.

—Rustom sahib (1951- )

The author assumes no obvious political positions nor makes any loud ideological pronouncements; like an epic author he just looks at the events with a detached gaze that turns even tragedies and crises into just passing scenes from life’s comic theatre, though the careful reader can see, as in a play by Ionesco or Beckett, how innocence gets punished in a world growing more and more absurd, and what ails the systems of justice we have created.

Profound human document The strength of Sonora Jha’s ambitious debut novel Foreign (Random House India, 2013) on the other hand is involvement. She has used lessons from her life as a journalist and thrown in a lot of factual details from what she has seen and read—she thanks the people of Pandharkawada for sharing their stories with her and also acknowledges the fine journalism of P. Sainath, Dionne Bunsha and Jaideep Hardikar—but the novel itself is a profound human document that in its best moments borders on poetry and can choke the reader with the silent pain of the suicide fields.

Dr Katya(yani) Misra is the “foreigner” here: she is in fact a Maharashtrian settled as an academic in Seattle who loves her life abroad and is engaged to Alec Rauland, looking forward to a happy life with him and her son Kabir she had with her first husband, Ammar Chaudhry, an activist working among the cotton farmers of Vidarbha, impoverished and driven to suicide by the introduction of Bt cotton and the exploitation by the moneylenders who also control the government machinery and are in league with the police.

Katya was having the big moment of her academic career, the release of her book, It’s racist Not to Laugh at Obama: Why Caricaturing the President is Important to Politics , when she gets the shocking news from her mother who lives with her that Kabir has gone missing. After a frantic search and many calls to friends in India and the police, they come to find that the boy is on his way to Dhanpur, the village in Maharashtra, in search of his father who had been working among the farmers. The police could locate the boy so fast only as he was first suspected to have terrorist links as people had seen him throwing his mobile phone into a rubbish dump, and the law-keepers had already been following his trail. Kabir had called his mother before disconnecting and bidding farewell to the familiar urban world, but Katya had been busy in the function. She feels terribly guilty when she sees Kabir’s missed calls and is worried how he, who had grown up in Seattle, would find his way in India. Now she has only one choice: go to Dhanpur and bring him back.

Katya’s experience in India brings about a deep transformation in her world view. She gets close to Gayatribai and Bajirao, the brave farmer couple who host her and Kabir in the village. Kabir slowly gets involved in his father’s work as he comes to learn the horrible realities of the village. Katya who goes to the extent of seducing Ammar once to get back her son, is at first disenchanted but gradually gets involved herself with the problems, especially after Gayatribai asks her to save her husband from suicide. Strangely, it is Gayatribai who saves Kabir from peril while she herself gets raped and is later diagnosed with cancer. Meanwhile, she also becomes a brave leader of the farmers who unite under Ammar’s guidance to stop the Chief Minister as he passes through the village, make him listen to their problems and promise remedial measures.

Gayatribai’s daughter Meera gets married and on the wedding day, Bajirao throws himself into the flooded river hoping that the compensation his death would bring would help the family repay their debts. Katya begins to understand and sympathise with Ammar, who wants to reunite with her and their son, but she knows he cannot be a responsible husband and despite her activist aspirations, decides to go back to Alec and her academic career in Seattle. But she leaves him a gift after getting him to promise that he would be a caring father: Kabir, who would help him in his work and pursue his studies in India. (Let no cynic accuse her of wanting to get rid of her son before rejoining with her American lover!)

There is some sign of hope at the end as Gayatribai undergoes a successful lung surgery and the continuing struggle gets the notice of the media after Katya uses her old contacts from her journalist days and a series of dramatic events attract the press to the village. Katya writes a book, co-authored with Gayatri Athale (Gayatribai) around what she had witnessed in the village, Bajirao’s Choice: Life and Death on India’s Cotton Farms and the book tour once again takes her to Maharashtra where the farming activists across the world would gather to build a foundation to promote sustainable irrigation projects and fair trade indigenous seed exchange. The proceeds from the book would go to a farmers’ fund they wanted to set up. The novel ends when news arrives from Ammar that Gayatribai is unable to join the tour as one of her sons-in-law has died. “How did he die?” a reporter asks.

The novel with its obvious commitment to the cause it upholds has several moving situations, of anguish as well as excitement, many interesting characters who far from being stereotypes, have their moments of courage and weakness, of kindness and indifference, of doubt and determination and many dramatic contexts packed with suspense making the reader feel that this would make a workable narrative source for a meaningful film that will be much more than a documentary on the state of farmers in the cotton belt.


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