The Fate of Butterflies Posts

“Prelude to a Riot” by Annie Zaidi

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.”

Forces of history are at work, he says. Forces too big to fight. He reels off dates. 1947, 1857, 1799. I slapped my head. Spare me. I don’t understand kings and queens. I am a simple man.

Slathered on the walls, wrapping all the way around the street. Every shutter, all the way up to the white mosque. It is true. That puffed-up face, like mouldy pastry. The fellow has called us aliens in our own land. He lost the election and we thought, that would teach him. Now here was, his face pasted on my wall.

Award-winning novelist and playwright Annie Zaidi’s novella No Prelude to a Riot is a disturbing, hard-hitting story set in a nameless city. It is about the rising communal tensions and the anxiety of living under constant siege. What comes across equally poignantly is the writer’s own attempts at writing a story that is extremely close to the reality of today. To be writing under a sense of constant siege, where the lines between the fictional characters and plot are blurred, is not an easy task. Sometimes it seems as if the voices of the characters are not strong enough, probably due to the circumstances they live in, yet they do manage to slip in what they have to say, jolting the reader with their pronouncements. It leaves a sinking feeling in the stomach.

Earlier this year Annie Zaidi won the $100,000 Nine Dots Prize for her essay Bread, Cement, Cactus. It will be expanded and published as a short book by Cambridge University Press in 2020. The Nine Dots Prize is a book prize for creative thinking that tackles contemporary societal issues. Entrants for the prize are asked to respond to a question in 3,000 words and the winner receives $100,000 (Rs 69.83 lakh) to write a short book expanding on the essay’s idea. The question this year was “Is there still no place like home?” “Zaidi’s entry, ‘Bread, Cement, Cactus’, combines memoir and reportage to explore concepts of home and belonging rooted in her experience of contemporary life in India, where migration – within the country, especially from villages to cities – is high,” the Nine Dots Prize said in a statement.

Prelude to a Riot is a novella that explores similar concepts of home and belonging while rooted in the very real and disturbing issues of communal violence, a growing intolerance of the other and crumbling of democracy. It is shattering to realise that Prelude to a Riot, Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Fate of Butterflies and Ravish Kumar’s The Free Voice are critical contributions to contemporary literature, offering perspectives while bearing witness to the current socio-political events.

18 September 2019

Book Post 27: 10-23 February 2019

At the beginning of the week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 27 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought and are worth mentioning.

25 February 2019

Of Nayantara Sahgal’s “The Fate of Butterflies” and Toni Morrison’s “Mouth Full of Blood”

Nayantara Sahgal (b. 1927) and Toni Morrison (b.1931) have new publications out this past week. Nayantara Sahgal has a novella called The Fate of Butterflies. Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her non-fiction articles published over the past four decades. Every word chosen in these books is powerful. The two writers have witnessed significant periods of modern history — from the Second World War onwards to experiencing the joy of new democracies and its mantras of self-reliance, new freedoms as those made available with womens’ movements’ and the end of racial segregation, to the presently depressing times of rising ultra-conservative politics, authoritarian rule and sectarian violence. So when Nayantara Sahgal and Toni Morrison as seasoned storytellers pour their wisdom and experience into their writings without mincing words, you listen for the truths they share.

Nayantara Sahgal’s novella The Fate of Butterflies told from the perspective of a political science professor, Prabhakar, is a chilling tale about the all-pervading violence that exists in society. It is an insidious presence that is gradually transforming the rules of social engagement. It is licensing sectarian violence to such a degree that is fast becoming the norm rather than the deviant behaviour it is. The dystopic society Prabhakar finds himself in where people speak of “them” and “they”, mysteriously unnamned groups who are powerful enough to command and strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens. The horrors shared in The Fate of Butterflies of mass rapes of women and children, slicing bellies of pregnant women before sexually assaulting them, the homophobic behaviour of some expressed in the horrific violence towards individuals by setting them on fire after trying to castrate them, the quiet disappearance of kebabs and rumali roti from Prabhakar’s favourite dhaba with the excuse that Rafeeq the cook had disappeared making it impossible to offer Mughal cuisine to finding a naked body on the road wearing only a skull cap makes this fiction at times too close to reality. It seems to be a thinly veiled account of many of the witness accounts, oral testimonies and media reports of pogroms and communal violence that have been witnessed in recent years. Linking modern crimes to the historical accounts of Nazi Germany when such horrors unleashed on civil society where first witnessed and documented, Nayantara Sahgal, seems to be reminding the reader of the past being revisited today in the name of “nostalgia” and “harmony” when it is actually a crime against humanity, a human rights violation.

Lopez reminded his friends: no meat unless proven to be mutton, not cow. The Cow Commission went around making sure. He was thinking of becoming a vegetarian himself, he was scared as hell that his fridge might be raided and the mutton turned into beef. Suspects were being dealt with out on the streets, surrounded by camers and cheering beholders. He didn’t fancy that treatment for himself.  It was far from reassuring in view of Rafeeq’s disappearance or dismissal. they drank their cloying Limcas, not sure how to find out about Rafeeq. The kaif’s water wasn’t safe and there was no mineral water left. All the bottles of mineral water had been commandeered by ‘them’, the ‘they’ and ‘them’ who came and went, mysteriously unnamed.

Lopez, who taught Modern Europe, said, “This tea party you were at, Prabhu, you said the Slovak was well ahead of the others.’

‘Why wouldn’t he be? They’ve have practice. They had a flourishing Nazi republic during the war, with a Gestapo and Jew-disposal and all the trimmings, and evidently there’s a tremendous nostalgia for those good old days when everybody was kept in line, or in harmony, as they called it.

Togetherness was the watchword. Not that the other speakers weren’t harking back to the glories of the 1930s, but I did get the feeling that some of them were sitting back and waiting to see which way the wind would blow before they risked investing in it. Only fools rush in. Compared with the rest of them the Slovak was the only Boy Scout.’

‘But most people are little people who have to go along with whatever’s happening,’ said Lopez, ‘either because they don’t know any better, or they have no choice and can’t afford to lose their wages or their lives.’

‘Most people,’ repeated Prabhakar, and again with stubborn emphasis, ‘most people everywhere, in Europe or here or anywhere else, only ask to be left in peace to live their lives. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.’

Toni Morrison’s A Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her essays, speeches and meditations. They are a testament to her varied experiences in American history and literature, politics, women, race, culture, on language and memory. These are structured essays to occasional pieces of writing to moving eulogies as for James Baldwin to her Nobel Prize in Literature speech. It is a wide range of pieces which deserve to be read over and over again but it is the introduction to this volume entitled “Peril” that is exceptionally powerful. It is a commentary on contemporary world politics while focused on the importance of a writer and the significance of making art especially in authoritarian regimes.

In “Peril” Toni Morrison reasons that despots and dictators are no fools and certainly not foolish enough to “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements or follow their creative instincts” for if they did, it would be at their own peril. Whereas writers of all kinds — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that works like a coma on the population, “a coma despots call peace”. As she astutely points out that “historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow”. She continues that there are two notable human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. But she woudl like to add a third category — “stillness”. This could be passivity or dumbfoundedness or it can be paralytic fear. But in her opinion it can also be art.

Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, …writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. …The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that though is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature. Likewise pay heed when these two old and wise women speak. Pay heed.

22 February 2019