“Nobody can give you the whole truth in one easy-to-swallow capsule. No scientist, no historian,” Garuda, a schoolteacher, explains to his students in Annie Zaidi’s new novel. “A man is many things—short and fat, bald and brave, sad and bad—simultaneously.” He attempts, however, to unravel the complex skein of history for his students, unspooling and complicating long-held but false ideas about rulers, conquests and the usurping of land. Yet the teenagers in his charge remain largely disinterested. The world outside the classroom, after all, doesn’t care all that much about the truth.
Set in a small, sleepy town in southern India, Prelude to a Riot is a striking attempt to understand how a seemingly peaceful place can slowly turn into one festering with hate. Populated with an array of characters, the novel offers multiple perspectives to readers. There’s the spirited 15-year-old Fareeda who is left shaken when her closest friends force her to eat pork; her brother Abu who warns against the imminence of communal violence in the town, mostly in vain; and their loving grandfather, a plantation owner who chooses to turn away from the miasma spreading around him and tend to his plants instead.
Another family, proud descendants of a clan that helped the British defeat Tipu Sultan, meanwhile, grow increasingly suspicious of the presence (and imagined proliferation) of their Muslim neighbours and migrant workers alike, although they’re only too happy to underpay the latter while exploiting their services. Stuck in the middle is Devaki, the daughter of Appu, who laments the “three hundred years’ worth of stories clogging up the arteries of our men. Sitting around their hearts, slimy and thick with half-truths.”
Zaidi keeps the town unnamed—we are told only that it’s a hilly plantation town that is a popular summer destination for tourists—hinting perhaps that the events in the novel could easily take place in any corner of the country. But she hones in with stunning precision on how a complex web of religion, caste, gender and class informs what is eventually the biggest agent of resentment. “We thrive on chaos. Everything is tolerated. What we do not tolerate is movement. Social mobility,” Garuda tells his students during a class.
“'Prelude to a Riot' is marked by a keen sense of observation, a remarkable sense of place and pulsates with lithe writing, informed in no small part by Zaidi's strength as a poet.”
Mumbai-based Zaidi has never been one to be hemmed in by the limitations of genre or medium. She’s a playwright, journalist, filmmaker, literary critic and poet. She’s published collections of short stories and essays. She’s edited an anthology of 2,000 years of women’s writing in India, staged plays, directed short films, and written a horror novella. In her first full-length work of fiction, Zaidi seems to have brought together her many avatars. Prelude to a Riot is marked by a keen sense of observation, a remarkable sense of place and pulsates with lithe writing, informed in no small part by her strength as a poet. She switches registers and tone deftly when moving from the perspective of one character to the next, with the book structured as a series of soliloquies—a narrative device most often used in theatre. And most vividly, she has a firm grasp on what motivates her characters.
In May this year, Zaidi won the second edition of the Nine Dots Prize, a $100,000 award that encourages writers to tackle contemporary societal issues, for her essay Bread, Cement, Cactus, which combines memoir and reportage to explore concepts of home and belonging. A full-length book based on the essay—an end result of the prize—is slated for publication next year.
The writer is tight-lipped about the coming book for now, but in an interview with HuffPost India, she spoke about her novel, how communal violence seems to be following a script, what it might take to stop it, the lack of avenues for writers in India and trying to get people to listen in an increasingly hostile present. Edited excerpts from the interview:
You end Prelude to a Riot before any large-scale violence breaks out in the town. There are all kinds of ominous signs, increasingly vocal expressions of discontent but there is no actual riot. Yet you know that it’s going to happen. What drove that choice?
A lot of the motivation for writing this novel came from listening and watching. I was travelling for research about three-and-a-half years ago and heard a lot of these conversations. This was in a very peaceful place. It isn’t the sort of place that you go to and say that something is going to happen. You don’t actively see anyone ratcheting up trouble. There are no hostile groups in sight and the only organized activity is ambiguous talk about pride in local culture. And yet, I was afraid. I was trying to make sense of fear in the face of people being nice to you.
With the violence, you know that it’s coming—it’s not coming today, it’s not coming next month, but it’s coming. People who are smart enough get out early. People who are optimistic don’t.
I think I was more interested in the violence that precedes the violence.
“I was trying to make sense of fear in the face of people being nice to you.”
Is that because the actual violence is something that we’re getting increasingly deadened to? With the rise in lynchings and targeted attacks against minorities?
I think we are getting used to the sight of violence being perpetrated, often against defenceless people. There is a reason why these acts are filmed and uploaded online. There is no sense of the perpetrators wanting to at least stay anonymous and protect themselves. A generation ago, they wanted to do that. For instance, when the Babri Masjid came down, one of the first things that happened was the smashing of journalists’ cameras. Even 10-15 years ago, there was this sense of wanting to do something hostile but not be seen doing it. Now you want to be seen, not only because of the question of fear of consequences—that’s incidental. Something has fundamentally shifted. It’s not just about getting away with it—they actually draw legitimacy from it.
They want to be known for it?
This is very new. What role technology plays I can’t say but I think the more we see of it, the less we respond to it, even with disgust, because the other thing is that all of it so similar. It’s the same visual; it’s just the names that are changing. It could be about cattle, it could be about a parking fight. But it’s almost like people are seeing one visual and reenacting it under some pretext or the other. This is also new. It’s like a script has been put out there and everybody is privy to it. It’s almost like a meme, except that somebody dies.
Is a riot an inevitable eventuality in the novel? What could it even take to stop a flow of events such as these?
I feel like any one of the characters can stop it. One of the things in this narrative that I was not quite aware of while writing, but I am aware of now, is that while everybody who is fearful or in the path of the storm senses that something is about to happen, the people who are likely to perpetuate it are not yet necessarily aware that they are going to be violent.
People are often talking in ambiguities and metaphors, not saying what they wish to achieve and being allowed to get away with it. I think the moment you bring this out into the open, name things that need naming and force people to confront what’s truly happening, it’s a quick way to at least force the discussion and stop the momentum. Those who don’t want to do it then won’t be drawn so easily into the semi-truths and falsehoods, they won’t follow the script. Truth-telling is a big part of stopping those who can be stopped.
The structure of the novel has many characters narrating their point of view in turn, delivering soliloquies. Did you always imagine it as a story to be told through multiple perspectives?
No. I didn’t actually set out to write a novel. I never set out to write anything big because it’s very frightening. I’m not a very plot-driven writer—I don’t usually know what I’m doing. I tend to write shorter things or start writing and then see where it’s going. So I started writing a short story, which I thought would be a long short story —about 8,000-10,000 words.
I started with Fareeda’s soliloquy. She was very clear in my mind and because of who she is and how her family is, I knew that there would be her brother’s point of view. But I was struggling structurally with how to switch between two points of view in one short story. I tried but it wasn’t quite falling into place. So, then that two became three and then four, and it was all still telling some kind of story but it was a very sketchy one. At that time, I was still telling the story of people, not of a place. I was trying to capture the complexity of so-called victims, what their lives are like before being destroyed. But once I started to write from the perspectives of characters who were going to put the lives of these people in danger, then it became bigger and about the place.
“People are often talking in ambiguities and metaphors, not saying what they wish to achieve and being allowed to get away with it. I think the moment you bring this out into the open, name things that need naming and force people to confront what’s truly happening, it’s a quick way to at least force the discussion and stop the momentum.”
Was the perspective of potential perpetrators of violence hard to embody? Such as Vinny, who while not being as extreme as his father, holds deeply bigoted ideals at his core.
Vinny was one of the last ones I wrote. I didn’t know how to get into him initially but I needed him because he keeps popping up in all the stories.
Also, the trigger for this novel came from a person like that. I’ve heard the things that Vinny says in the novel almost verbatim from various people.
Like what he says about migrant workers, about not liking them but noticing how they’re very strong. There’s part envy, part awe, and part fear there. The envy makes the hate worse. Because you can’t pity them, you envy their independence—they earn, they move away, they come back. And the people saying this in real life are not aware of their envy. They’re aware of their resentment but not their envy. I’ve heard a lot of people talk as if they’re feeling stuck where they are. For all their talk of “this is my land, this is my state, how dare you come here”, a lot of them also want to get out.
There’s no political organisation or a prominent party member stirring discontent and conflict in the novel as is usually depicted in fiction, or even how we understand the breaking out of communal riots in real life. It’s people who feel entitled to the land and to their dominance talking amongst themselves and becoming increasingly spiteful…
I don’t think parties cause riots. I firmly believe that it is individuals—often entitled and resentful individuals. People with a direct stake in local problems who then join parties. And if there’s a critical mass in a particular organisation, they then become powerful enough to support everybody else who wants to create similar problems.
I think ‘riot’ is still the wrong word for it. A riot implies a vague equality of fired-up sentiment and clash. This is drummed-up trouble for which we still don’t have the right word. If it’s premeditated and slowly enacted over the years, and some people are just trying to defend themselves or are not even able to fight back, then that’s not a riot. But it’s also not a pogrom, which is where the state, the police, the administration are actively involved. What do you call something like what happened in Muzaffarnagar, for instance? In one word. Even in Hindi, for instance, danga or fasaad is not the word I’m looking for. If you keep saying danga, then you keep that myth alive, that it is equally balanced and both parties are at fault.
Part of the problem is that we’re not saying the things that need saying and we don’t have the vocabulary for what is actually unfolding around us.
“All the women in the novel are a little saner. Even if they’re entitled because of coming from a certain class, they don’t think that their entitlements override another person’s right to life.”
The character of Devaki in the novel is smart and intelligent and provides counters to pretty much every bigoted argument that her family makes, but it makes very little difference to the men she’s talking to. There’s also her husband who starts off having the same point of view and politics as her and then slowly seems to be sliding towards contempt and hate. What did you find about the gendered aspect of how these things this plays out while researching and writing this novel?
One thing is very obvious. It’s mostly men who are involved in riots. Women who are vociferous and push for a certain form of violence rarely participate in it, unless they’re very politically ambitious. If not already politically active, then they’re certainly looking for the approval of the men—their constituency is not women. This is something I find very interesting. And we don’t talk enough about it. People like to say that a woman’s place in the home, but that also means a woman has a lot invested in keeping that home safe. What is it about not wanting to be at home, and aspiring to leadership—of men, not women—that leads to violence? I think once we answer that question a lot of other things will fall into place.
All the women in the novel are a little saner. Even if they’re entitled because of coming from a certain class, they don’t think that their entitlements override another person’s right to life. What discourse enables this? It’s not that women are incapable of doing that. It’s just that it is not in their interests and they see that. What makes men blind to it?
There is a strong sense of characters not really listening to each other, whether to warnings, while countering dangerous arguments, or correcting inaccurate accounts of history. At the same time, getting people to listen is one of the roles of a writer. Have you been thinking about how we can do it in our increasingly violent and combative present?
I do think one of the things is to get off social media. And I’m on it a lot myself. The more we talk online, the less we talk offline. You don’t really listen online because your hackles and walls are up even before you finish hearing someone.
The other problem is that there is now this tendency to not lean towards deep conversation and knowledge. It’s a particular kind of ignorance that seeks to know nothing more than the bare minimum necessary to go through the motions of life. It’s the opposite of the thirst of knowledge, which I find distressing because my whole life is about wanting to know and understand things, even unpleasant ones.
Also, I think we need to talk about alternative ways of being. One of the problems with politics in general—and I think not just in India, this applies equally to our neighbours, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka—is that we are not talking about what we can be, we’re talking about what we thought we might have been. There’s a lot of hand-wringing and breast-beating and hair-pulling. I’m as complicit as anyone else. Even 15-20 years ago, in Left organizations and a lot of social organizations, we were saying things like “another world is possible”. When was the last time you heard that? The damage has been done, okay, but how are you going to undo that?
Is that just because of a loss of optimism?
No, it’s sheer opportunism. Everybody has something invested in other people dying.
In the novel, Devaki wonders if “home is that place that you can never leave”. And you recently wrote an essay that won you the Nine Dots Prize, expanding on the theme, “Is there still no place like home?” Is this idea of home something that you’ve been thinking about a lot?
For a long time now. Maybe not directly of home, but certainly questions of belonging. These questions become important in India. It’s the first thing anyone asks you: “where are you from?” And then of course they ask you what your caste is and then what your religion is. The questioning is in your face. It’s not like you can avoid it.
But I’ve also thought about it for a long time particularly because of who I am. Some people have a lot of clarity about home because they’ve either grown up in one place or because their families are very settled in one place, or because the idea of home is informed by the lives they’re living and not a geographical location. I’m still working my way through those thoughts with the writing….
With the writing of the new book? Can I ask how it’s going?
The prize has a very generous cash component that lets you research and also lets you focus on one particular idea and navigate your way through it. It’s not exactly common…
It’s very rare. Normally, people give grants rather than prizes. I had applied for a lot of grants, and I got rejected by all of them, which I was quite cut up about. Mainly because there are certain works that require money for research – all the travel and also the time. I found that I just couldn’t pull together enough money to write any of those projects and a lot of them are still stuck. Especially in non-fiction, things change so fast, research becomes dated and you have to do it all over again.
A lot of countries actually manage to get good work through art councils. In India, we have very few grants—we have the New India Foundation for non-fiction and PSBT for documentary films—and there’s Sahitya Akademi of course but they also give prizes not grants, and they aren’t big enough to sustain work.
Does this then also dictate who gets to write?
Absolutely. I’m actually very surprised that we still manage to get a lot of people writing in all languages, and from all backgrounds, and then winning prizes later. I think our literature is great but a lot of it is great in fiction. A lot of good non-fiction simply can’t be mounted currently unless you’re already a working journalist. And even then, it will take you 10 years to write a good book.
We’re at a point where journalism is simultaneously supremely important and severely compromised. As someone who can and does write both fiction and non-fiction, do you feel a stronger pull or responsibility towards the latter in a world of muddy, murky truths?
I do. I’ve been meaning to write fiction for the last few years but I’m so distracted by reality and I feel like I should be writing about that because it’s more important. But I don’t have the tools anymore. I don’t have the platform and also when I write nonfiction, I have to think about what aspect of truth to pick up and highlight. And what that actually achieves. I think opinion is a little overrated—and I’ve written my fair share of it—and has collapsed in journalism. There is this tacit understanding of “let’s be balanced”. It’s deeply unsettling… The main crisis is that we don’t know what journalism is supposed to achieve anymore. There is no consensus about that. Either, from the point of view of those who actually are running things, or from the point of view of people—there’s a whole generation out there that actually doesn’t know what journalism is supposed to be.
“I think Hindi was always politicised but now I’ve become aware of it.”
You write predominantly in English but you’ve also written a couple of plays in Hindi. When a language that you sometimes think and write in is politicised, as is happening with Hindi right now, do you find your relationship to it changing in any way?
I call Hindi my mother tongue, more than Urdu, which I know in a very limited way because I’ve come to it later in life. Whatever I know of either language, I think I’m somewhere in between, and that’s okay. I’m very comfortable with that.
I think Hindi was always politicised but now I’ve become aware of it. And in some sense, it’s very liberating. Because the realization has allowed me to then say “Oh, that’s what you’re trying to do. I’m not going to care about how you define this and I’m not going to respect your divisions.” But for that, you have to be able to see what’s happening. What this push does, really, is that it just exposes the agenda a little more clearly.