01 January 2008

Sins of Secularists


The Solitude of Emperors
By David Davidar
Viking/Penguin
Pages 246
Rs 495


When the New York Times declared Davidar’s first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes -- a stately, multigenerational saga set in the Nilgiris, from where Davidar himself hails, of pre-Independence India -- a ‘Notable Book of the Year,’ 2001, it seemed like a validation of the axiom that a good writer could come from anywhere, even if he happened to be a publisher-editor-brand manager of the largest English language publishing houses in India with an enviable book list.

Davidar, the man who built Penguin Books India from scratch and now heads Penguin Canada, proves with his latest book the corollary of the same axiom: that even a writer steeped in literary culture, armed with a top-of-the-pyramid view of international publishing, not to mention the international bestseller under his name, can come up with a muff of a book.

The Solitude of Emperors is the story is of Vijay, a young, idealistic Tam-Brahm who escapes his suffocating small town of his upbringing by writing a short report for a a Mumbai-based magazine called ‘The Indian Secularist’ edited by a sanguine secularist Parsi, Rustom Sorabjee. Vijay soon lands a job in the magazine and is off to Bombay where is becomes a meat-eating, secularist, metropolitan journalist. Here during the Bombay riots post-Babri, he is nearly killed by rampaging Hindu thugs.

To recover from the trauma, Vijay is sent to Meham in the Nilgiris where another Babri Masjid-in-the-making Christian shrine awaits Hindu right-wing recidivists’ challenge. He meets and (a bit too) soon becomes chummy with a stuck-in-the-‘70s Boho dude there named Noah, a shady squatter in the local graveyard where he does drugs and whores, while his dog Godless cavorts around with a pack of bitches.

When a Bombay-based businessman-turned-politician Rajan decides to claim the Christian shrine for the Hindus, Vijay’s rest and relaxation interlude turns into a busman’s holiday. Like a wild-eyed, secularist new convert, he jumps into the fray, all charged up reading chapters from a manuscript written by Sorabjee titled, ‘The Solitude of the Emperors: Why Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi Matter to Us Today,’ containing profiles of the three great men ‘brief enough to hold the attention of even the most restless teenager’ through which Sorabjee advances the necessity of solitude for a leader. Sorabjee’s manuscript becomes the book within a book that redundantly amps up the ideology in a novel that was already full of it.

Despite some glimmer of his old self peeping through evocative descriptions of the Nilgiris, and some engaging, clearly autobiographical bits about small-town boy discovering himself in the city, Davidar, trying to achieve a sparse, clean, uncluttered narrative textured by the fictional text within a text, ends up with a flat, unaccented, monotonous narrative that seems to be written in a self-induced daze not unlike the amusingly hollow, frozen intensity of a Rajasthani puppet that his main characters exhibit.

The characters’ phoney ardour recalls equally generic characters of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, who lined up obediently for and against capitalism. Solitude’s wafer-thin characters too seem to be mere loud-hailers for Davidar to pick and speak through bits from his morality play about secularism. Their runaway passion for secularism and their idealism is never convincingly explained. Why does Noah, apparently based on the wild-haired flâneur-poet Arun Kolatkar, become tamer and tamer after his first meeting with Vijay? Has he at last agreed to take his medication?

Specificity. This is the missing ingredient in Solitude. Without it Davidar’s attempt to take on grand political themes, reads little better than a sketchy first draft of a case study.

The original sin might have been the injudicious choice of first-person narrative. Perhaps, told from the unctuous, wily Rajan’s point of view, or better as a third-person account, the story would have achieved lot more irony, complexity, and density. The narratives of the two near-perfect, self-righteous characters, have the readers feeling that Davidar has left them at the mercy of two bores while he travels around the world on his book tour.

Maybe, Davidar should have anonymously submitted his manuscript, like he did with his last book, for it looks there are not many editors around him who dare point at the Emperor’s new clothes.

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