When In­dia Ex­otic meets In­dia Em­bat­tled, a brave new transcon­ti­nen­tal hero­ine is born

India Today - - LEISURE - By Kaveree Bamzai

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?

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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