Interview: Annie Zaidi, Author, Prelude to a Riot – books author interview
When the poet Louise Glück recently received the Nobel Prize for Literature, she said: “The first thing I thought was that I will not have friends, because most of my friends are writers.” Is this the kind of thing that bothers you too? He won the Nine Dots Award of $ 100,000 in 2019. This year, he is on the shortlist for the JCB Prize for Literature Rs25 lakh. Have writing friends started treating you differently?
My friends and I have been very supportive of each other over the years. I can’t imagine an award changing how we feel. If she did, then that would tell me something about the kind of friendship she is and I don’t think I would miss her too much. I know that if one of my close friends wanted an award, they would feel nothing but joy. And I hope my friends feel the same.
How did you arrive at the title of your novel? Prelude to a riot? I’m also curious if there is a reference here to Shashi Tharoor’s 2001 novel. Riot: a love story. Aside from the fact that both you and Tharoor are grappling with the issue of religious intolerance, there are also some similarities in form: the use of lyrics, soliloquies, advertisements, and news reports. Your thoughts?
I have sometimes had trouble naming my work properly. Even as a journalist, I always had problems with headlines and subtitles. However, I usually have an internal “title” that tells me what it is about and why I am writing it. With this book, I learned that it was about the events that precede community violence and that it is not spontaneous, so I gave it a working title of Prequel to a riot, but when it was sent to the editors, they suggested changing it to Prelude, in keeping with the lyricism he suggested.
I read Shashi Tharoor’s Rampage Many years ago and I remember its history but not the form, so I cannot comment on the various narrative techniques used. I do remember that it was the aftermath of violence and someone trying to find out who was responsible. In terms of mood, I think it is closer to that of Nayantara Sahgal. Storm in Chandigarh. That was also a love story set against political machinations, with hints of violence in the background. Thematically, my novel is different, however, in that it is less concerned with the fate of the individuals it describes and more with the fracture of the body of the city itself. It is less the event of violence and more the invention of it.
In the acknowledgments section, he mentions that author Musharraf Ali Farooqi “was one of the first readers of this text, before it was a proper novel.” How did your comments and friendship nurture your work? Who are the other writers you turn to when you need critical input, encouragement, or even validation?
What I share with my writing friends depends on the genre I’m working on. With non-fiction, I usually follow my own instincts or work with the publisher or magazine editor. Musharraf is a very supportive friend; it captures my fictitious sensitivity and its innate direction. Mridula Koshy is another writer friend; We met in a group of critics where we perfected our craft and found our first book deals. The group eventually disbanded, but I have had the support, feedback, guidance and solidarity of Mridula. There are other writing friends, some from my college days, from journalism circles, theater or film circles. I remember spending the afternoons at the Prithvi Theater in Mumbai, where I was approached by other people who wanted to tell their stories even though I hardly knew them. They just wanted someone to listen to their ideas, and I did. People who work in the arts or in the media need a support network because we can only grow in an environment where others are also doing challenging and unexpected work.
In Prelude to a riot, your character Devaki says, “Conversion means that someone is not happy. If people win freedom, happiness, anything, even money, why shouldn’t they convert? It’s the right thing to do. “To what extent do you agree with her? How do you respond to anxiety around ‘love jihad’?
I believe that people should have the right to convert to whatever type of religious faith they choose, and it is not for us to judge their motivation. Look at the opposite circumstance. A culture that discourages or prohibits conversion is an oppressive culture and there is a high risk that self-proclaimed guardians of the faith (any faith!) Will enforce adherence to a single stream of ritual, or else … It leads to spiritual decay because religion, like everything else in life, needs air and sun. A humane approach to faith, I believe, leaves room for a diversity of beliefs and practices. However, faith itself is nullified when it forbids someone to convert. What does it mean to belong to a faith if you are held there by force, because you have no other options, or because you are terrified of the consequences of changing your mind?
I don’t think the anxiety around ‘Love Jihad’ is real. It is a political-religious campaign based on the idea that citizens, particularly young people, do not have the right to their own life and opinion. Those who seek to prevent inter-religious or inter-caste marriages are those who think of children as property, to be eliminated as they see fit. This is not about anxiety. It is about disrespecting the body and heart of your own children.
Let’s talk about Garuda, the schoolmaster in this book, who says, “White elites are driven out of the country, but they are all still sitting in their assigned caste places.” How does this statement apply to the literary establishment of India in terms of who is published and promoted, invited to festivals and residencies?
All establishments operate within a certain language of power. The literary establishment must deal with language itself. English, of course, is currently one of the most powerful languages, and most festivals are organized around English writers. This is partly because it is a bridging language and right now you can’t do an international festival in India without English being dominant, even if you look beyond American or British authors. Authors whose work is not translated into English do not receive many invitations. The same goes for residences. The truly enablers, where you don’t have to pay for room and board, need their work to be available in English. Also, Indian authors whose work is not published in the UK or US are not highly invited there. There is no way to escape from that. However, things are slowly changing and translation has a lot to do with that.
The editor of the newspaper in Prelude to a riot writes: “We must not forget that anyone who seeks to block the flow of ideas, or of people, creates artificial hurricanes.” What do you think of the tendency to “cancel” and “displace” authors who adopt ideological positions that are considered politically incorrect, fascist or problematic due to their misogynistic or transphobic implications?
This is something I struggle with. Canceling sounds like a good idea until you start to see people you have in some way shut down or barred from new audiences. The point is, if you block an idea, you show the world that ideas can be blocked, not just from a conservative or regressive position, but from a progressive or civic position. It is very easy for fascists or misogynists to steal the vocabulary and method of the progressives or the marginalized, and turn it against the most powerless people in all countries.
A secondary problem is that well-intentioned people become overly anxious in their desire to counter politically incorrect positions and refuse to acknowledge the good in the person they are attacking. They don’t recognize that people often say things that they haven’t really thought through. There is little pause for ideological nuances. Just as people’s stories are different, their needs are different, similarly, people’s acceptance of humanity is different. On the other hand, if we never fight ideas, we could never achieve change. Criticism is essential and sometimes takes the form of denying entry to a person who is seen as representing an idea. Still, it is one thing for satyagrahis to shout “Simon, come back!” and risk having their heads broken, and another thing is that students threaten a teacher or bring criminal cases against him for expressing an opinion. All forms of negation cannot be measured by the same rule.
One problem (in my opinion) is that many of those who make the decision to remove the platform or not to invite someone are driven by fear rather than persuasion; fear of becoming unpopular with students, for example, or of being considered wrong by peers. Decisions driven by fear have a cascading effect. A university’s decision to cancel a talk could lead to everyone else doing the same, and not necessarily because they have become involved with conflicting ideas and the friction that was generated. There is a risk of further separating people and confining them in ideological silos. And once the fear recedes, what is left? Not better politics. What remains is the memory of fear and it may turn to those who made you fear, or begin to insidiously move into a more immoral and indefensible position. Which is to say, I really don’t have a solution. I think you have to think a little more about the change you are looking for and how it could be achieved.
I was struck by this statement in Mommad’s soliloquy in Prelude to a riot: “Those who don’t like the way things are done here, can leave.” On the one hand, it made me think of the phrase “Go to Pakistan”, which is often used to crush political dissent in India. On the other hand, it reminded me of a line from his recently published memoir. Bread, cement, cactus: “The spiritual fluidity of India is one of the things that gives me balance.” How do you make sense of the exclusions and confluences that exist simultaneously?
That is Mommad listening to a politician’s speech. In certain contexts, this becomes a “Go to Pakistan” moment. In other contexts, it can also be the assertion of regional dominance. It is a kind of intimidating statement of the type who assumes that “here” is a place that is his to describe and that anyone who does not obey him clearly does not belong here by right. Exclusion and confluence cannot coexist. This is one of the things that I have learned writing. Bread, cement, cactus. India’s spiritual fluidity actually gives me balance, but that’s only as long as it exists. Cultural and spiritual fluidity has been increasingly threatened over the past century and, as it recedes, it gives way to more intensely experienced exclusion.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator, and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.