KINGDOM OF BLOOD
When India Exotic meets India Embattled, a brave new transcontinental heroine is born
Zara, a young woman, abandoned by her mother, grows up in the fictional kingdom of Trivikrampur. In England as a young woman, she becomes a successful human rights lawyer, married to a charming English psychotherapist, who puts together brilliant salads and chills the champagne just right. The two boys she grew up with back home go their separate, yet intertwined ways. One, Shaikh Saheb Saifuddin Ramzi, becomes the inheritor of the House of Ramzi. The other, Jayendra Singh Vamana, becomes a minister. Yet they have their traditional identities: Saif is the pir sahib, and Jay is the maharaja. The legend of the Green- Clad Man that plays out in this thoroughly contemporary novel is that the Muslim sage must always be sacrificed to save the Hindu Vamana.
India Exotic and India Embattled merge in this intricately written novel. The story begins with the Gujarat riots and sweeps through a plot that echoes the Malegaon blasts as the communally harmonious state of Trivikrampur is stricken by riots and rumours. And the touch of exotic is kept alive in the legend of the Vamana, an incarnation of Vishnu, who founded the Trivikram dynasty.
The characters are put together with great care. Aunt Hana, the keeper of the flame of the Ramzis. Sita Devi, the Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindialike queen mother who pledges allegiance to Hindu right- wingers. Nyla, Zara’s restless mother, now in Italy, who couldn’t endure the suffocated life of the Qila. Sharmeen, Saif’s daughter, childlike in her innocence and in her intelligence. Peter, Zara’s husband, who begins life as a rebel, but ends up a complacent suburbanite.
But it’s Zara who is the novel’s anchor. Her confusion over her identity— born in Karachi, coming of age in Saurashtra, living in London— propels the plot. Her relationship with Peter, at times suffused with desire, at other times tinged with regret, embellishes the sentiment. “You carry your heritage inside you. You are your own nation,” says a character in the novel. It is true for even minor characters. They all harbour secrets that threaten to tear families apart: Could Jay and Zara be siblings? Could Saif die if an age- old taboo is broken? Could Kamran be a terrorist? How many roles does one character play?
Through sunlit afternoons in London and golden mornings in Trivikrampur’s Oval Garden, the novel moves from the horror of a refugee of the Gujarat riots of 2002, who has been repeatedly raped, her parents murdered, her house burned, to the tension of a public festival. The essence of the novel is the basis of India: Where an untouchable sweeper Rampyara can stand shoulder- to- shoulder with a Muslim butcher Ghulam Rasul and mourn the death of a Muslim Begum. The highly political nature of contemporary India is captured well: The conspiracy theories about a Muslim girls’ academy being used as a front for conversion, or a Pakistan- born human rights lawyer being mistaken for a spy.
At the end of it all though, what resonates is Zara’s theme: “Is she the career woman about to become the Queen’s Counsel at 35? An orphaned, abandoned child? A voiceless, nameless immigrant? Or the scion of a noble household, brought up to the knowledge of a line that began farther back than the thirteenth century?” When the child Zara is told she has descended from Chengiz Khan and Tamerlane, she puts a question to her mother: “With two such violent ancestors, what chance have I of being a peaceful person, Mama?” It’s a question that applies to India too. As the 24- year- old Muslim refugee from Gujarat, Parveen, who stirs Zara’s conscience and forces her to return to Trivikrampur, says: No bad thing for me to die/ If it were just once.
But what do you do in a nation that has to die every day?