Book Name: Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi
Published by: Aleph Book Company
In a peaceful southern town, amidst lush spice plantations, trouble is brewing. In the town live three generations of two families, one Hindu and the other Muslim, whose lives will be changed forever by the coming violence. At risk are Dada, the ageing grandfather who lovingly tends and talks to the plants on his estate; his strong-willed grandchildren, Abu and Fareeda; the newly married Devaki, who cannot fathom the forces that are turning her husband and her father into fanatics; Mariam, of the gifted hands, who kneads and pounds the fatigued muscles of tourists into submission; and Garuda, the high-school teacher who, in his own desperate way, is trying to impart the truth about the country’s history to a classroom of uninterested students.
Quietly but surely, the spectre of religious intolerance is beginning to haunt the community in the guise of the Self-Respect Forum whose mission is to divide the town and destroy the delicate balance of respect and cooperation that has existed for hundreds of years. Told with brilliance, restraint and extraordinary power, Annie Zaidi’s book is destined to become a classic.
About the author:
Annie Zaidi is the author of Gulab, Love Stories #1-14, and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. She is the editor of Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing. She won The Hindu Playwright Award in 2018 for her play Untitled 1, and the Nine Dots prize in 2019 for her essay ‘Bread, Cement, Cactus’. Annie Zaidi writes poetry, essays, fiction of varying lengths, and scripts for the stage and the screen.
Complex history, convoluted present or is it convoluted history and complex present? This is foremost what Annie Zaidi positions in ‘In Prelude to a Riot’, where each character takes the reader into their most intimate personal spaces filled with their thoughts and convictions through soliloquies. Set in an unnamed location somewhere in India where there are vast estates and plantations, the focus is on the members of two families – one Hindu and one Muslims, the writing takes readers through the thoughts processes of certain characters through which one sees fissures erupting: they start harmlessly enough but soon the readers feel the tingling countdown to an inevitable showdown somewhere in the immediate future.
Conversations are kept to a bare minimum between characters but each character has numerous questions and observations, perhaps mirroring the disquiet in today’s dysfunctional world where the majority has lost the art of meaningful conversations and dialogues, going instead for polarizing debates. The soliloquies are powerful and encompasses a range of pressing socio political issues we are confronted with: whose privileges comes at the cost of whom, the push and pull between ‘them’ and ‘us’ where each needs the other but is not prepared to give way. They also serve as reminders of how in the world today, people are stranded with their old prejudices and entrenched in how things are perceived, never ready to give a chance to something that is out of tune with their pre conceived notions. The author using them is a powerful nod at how society today is more of each one holding on to notions of what every person hold is right and not ready to hear another’s position.
Zaidi’s characters and their opinions and thought processes are a representation of the confusion and complexity of the India as we know today: where histories are being dug up and examined but with a jaundiced eye and then used for subversion and polarization. My favourite character has to be Garuda, a Class X teacher of history in a local school whose approach to teaching and history itself breaks norms but expectedly, he is the sole person who must remain isolated while the voices of hatred and prejudices are multiplied with more elements.
Zaidi’s writing is terse in parts and full of angst in others but one thing is constant, there is truth and anxiety in them. As Garuda tells us, “No big colonial sword needs to come down and slash the fabric of the nation. Muscle by muscle, atom by atom, we are being torn from within. We are our own bomb.” The plot that positions the characters against one another, showing us the weight of isolated sane voices in a losing battle to be heard while hate filled voices shut them down. The way the author looks at how privileges and entitlements cushion people against the immediate impact of social strife till the time they are impacted because they belong to a minority community is very close to another societal truth.
Go read this if you are into socio political commentary through fiction. Take this up if you are game for writing styles that break form and structure. At less than 200 pages, this little book is a powerful commentary to what is happening in many places in India today and perhaps the world.
Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi has been Shortlisted for the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature 2020.