Set in an unnamed southern town amid lush plantations of pepper, bananas, coffee, rice, and narrated in soliloquy Annie Zaidi’s 184- page novel, Prelude to a Riot is a brilliant, bold, honest, critical commentary on contemporary India. “Abu doesn’t want to work the land. He says it’s pointless because we cannot take the land with us when we leave”. Abu, grandson of Dada is able to see “it” coming while the family patriarch Dada refuses to see “it” coming. Dada’s talking to plants, his feigned denial of its coming, his sticking to his innate belief in such mystical lines: “Who could I hurt without damning my soul?/ Who in this world is not my own?” instead of opening eyes to see “it” coming encapsulates the well of sorrow and vulnerability of not only a nonagenarian man but his co-religionists too. For three generations peace and harmony prevails between his family and Appa’s, his closest Hindu neighbour. Now “ it” is coming with stupendous force to tear asunder the generational bonds of love, fraternity and friendship. Zaidi’s withholding of subterranean dark forces which “it” can unleash with lightning speed and unassailable strength is a narrative masterstroke. Coming of “it” is an unsettling refrain and it looms large on the minds of Indian Muslims. Here the novel crosses its boundary and validates the pains, traumas, fears of Indian Muslims of being burnt, killed, or driven out of their home land by their otherwise Hindu generous neighbours.
“No, Not mine. It’s Saju’s food that he won’t eat. Saju’s house, Saju’s food. Appa’s house Appa’s food. When I lived there, I used to think, I don’t want to eat in this house. I have not eaten in Appa’s house since I managed to get away from it. But there’s no getting away, is there?…Three hundred years ago, our clan sided with the whites. My ancestors helped them bring down a brown king. How many times I’ve heard the story. How we helped get rid of him. The British gave us guns. Us, not them. Ever since, we have had the upper hand… Appa loves to tell the story of the British felling Tipu Sultan. He used to tell it six, seven times a month when I was still living with them. Now he tells it six days a week, in my home…Three hundred years’ worth of stories, clogging up the arteries of our men…it makes the dinner table noxious. My father, my brother. Now Saju too…More bottles. Then it began. Them and us. Us and them. All our troubles, all their ease…I hide in the kitchen. I water the plants in the garden. I iron clothes with headphones in my ears. But no matter how far I retreat, Appa’s voice finds me. Hissing, spitting. Us. Them. Them. Us. Nothing blossoms in my garden.
One of them has brought a new jeep.
One of them has a three-storied house.
One of them has a new shop opposite to the fort.
One of them is getting his daughter married and giving her kilos of gold.
One of them is going to the Gulf. All of them go to the gulf. Slick, black, greasy Arab money and they’re fattening up on it. They don’t even need plantations.
Saju’s parents bought a bakery to set us up after the wedding. No bank loans. Just gave him the money…For Vinny’s wedding, my mother bought all the gold jewellery right here, in the same local shops. I bring up Bavna’s new gold bracelets…If Appa and Vinny are not making money, then how is Bavna getting new gold sets?…Appa has grand plans for expanding his homestay into a resort. Not one, not two, five new cottages have been built on his estate. Can’t I see where the money is flowing like water? As for his worker! If one shirt is filthy, the other one is wet. Sucking their blood, then abusing them (buggers! bloody illegals, traitors)—this is our culture? ” Devaki, Appa’s daughter soliloquies.
Devaki’s monologue singularly unearths a host of blistering issues—increasing communal rupture that grips the town, baseless grievance flippancy of the majority and their mobilisation to a fanatical party (Self Respect Forum) , deliberate distortion of history, strong hold of patriarchy where women of course are not treated as ‘dead thing’ but they are still in search of ‘a room of one’s own’, double standards of the estate holders—they suck the blood of the cheap hands and their palaces are built on their sweat but they abuse them with choicest epithets like illegals, traitors,outsiders, aliens etc. Muslims, irrespective of their economic, educational, social status are increasingly made scapegoats for thousand alien reasons—failures of finances, downsizings, lack of job opportunities, lack of infrastructural development, corruption, institutions churning out millions of unemployable youths, to name only a few.
Owning guns, calling age-old neighbours aliens, forcing Fareeda to eat pork, murdering Mujibuddin, a migrant labourer, Mariam’s cry “ At last I told my father, enough! Kill me, but free me from this hell” , and her kneading and pounding the fatigued muscles of the tourists, Vinny’s cynical exclamation about aged Kadir’s Royal Bakery “Business is good, eh?”, “Free Meals?” and wrapping its walls with the posters of the “puffed-up face, like mouldy pastry” of the fellow who has called “us aliens in our own land”, Garuda’s firing from his teaching job for not being “normal in the classroom”, for encouraging learners to “read out of syllabus. A syllabus is ‘set’ for you. You understand? It is ‘set’ by people whose job is to limit your knowledge. I am against syllabuses”, for affirming “there was racism extant in the colonizations of ancient India…for we do have evidence of distant racial threads even among non-white populations, and there is apparent hegemony along caste lines” are some of the nuanced lenses that can effectively penetrate into the marrow of Zaidi’s poetic, passionate narrative.
Fear has gripped Dada’s community. Kadir’s walls are decorated with posters of criminals. He is complaining but has no courage to remove them. He shuffles; he crosses his hands over his belly. Dada’s denial or casually calling Self Respect Forum workers who are committed to divide citizens of the town on religious line merely pranksters is a deliberate subterfuge he uses to heal his wounds. Abu’s conviction of being steadily labelled as ‘outsider’ who can be kicked out easily, who has no safety of the ‘charmed circle’, his suggestion of taking Fareeda to town, Kadir’s prayer to Mariam to take him to a place where he can build a one-room cottage near the edge of the forest, leaving his good old business of Royal Bakery paints Zaidi world of inerasable sorrow of the community. We may here ask what B S Tyagi’s Afzal has asked: “Who has done all this—Muslim or Christian or someone else? Are they less than terrorists? Why aren’t they dubbed terrorists [outsiders]? Why aren’t they detained under POTA? Why don’t people shout –hang them? Or spit at them? Why aren’t these rapists hanged publicly?” Afzal’s questions go unanswered. And the excruciating pains and terrifying traumas from which Zaidi’s Abu, Fareeda, Dada, Kadir, Mariam are suffering can never be mitigated. They are at the receiving end. Either they have to leave the town or calmly bear the majority rogues. Vinny can easily buy a gun, Abu can’t. The criterion is not class as both are estate holders. It is caste. And the fissure among friends and neighbours is ever widening.
Prelude to a Riot
Aleph Book Company, 2019
Abu Siddik is a writer