At first Annie Zaidi's first novel Prelude to a Riot raises the expectations of being another Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Many characters enter into soliloquies that together form a collage in which are spread the seeds of a communal riot. There's a Hindu family and a Muslim family. Both are headed by owners of an estate each. Named Appa and Dada, respectively, these Hindu and Muslim patriarchs have children and grandchildren.
There's also a teacher, a migrant labourer, domestic helps and some other characters who complete the picture. There are fake news and letters to editors, particularly one objecting to the "publishing of a poem referencing the Goddess's waist". No riot takes place in the novel but its anticipation lurks around. The many events suggest that something is about to happen.
For a slim work, the cast is diverse and polyphonic. The experiment of developing the narrative through these disparate voices seems commendable.
Appa, for instance, enjoys narrating the British victory over Tipu Sultan. Three hundred years ago his ancestors had sided with the British to bring down the Muslim ruler. His son Vinny also despises Muslims. The communal faultlines are sharp,with women characters rejecting such polarisation. Almost every character can be taken as the representative of a section of society.
The narrative that develops through soliloquies delves deep into their inner world. One revelation at a time that eventually completes the jigsaw puzzle of contemporary India, a society that is trying to negotiate between the past and the present, the meaning of the natives and invaders.
Among the characters who unravel the maze is a school teacher named Garuda. He raises crucial questions and tries to change the historical sense of students. When his students ask him, "why did the Mughals invade so much", a question with a predetermined vantage point, he replies by offering the complexities of medieval India in which various Hindu kingdoms had not ceded their authority, instead entered into alliances with the Mughals.
A playwright and journalist, Zaidi recently received the $100,000 Nine Dots Prize for her essay Bread, Cement, Cactus. The expectations are obviously high. In Prelude to a Riot, she brings in various ingredients that make a novel.
Her language is often poetic; and yet, the novel, at best, remains a loose patchwork and doesn’t sufficiently stir the reader. It makes a significant political statement but is marred by the weak narrative.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist