[First published in YouthKiAwaaz]
One Small Voice is the debut novel of Santanu Bhattacharya. The ‘one small voice’ is the voice of Shubankar “Shabby” Trivedi, who grew up in a typical upper caste, (self-defined) middle-class household in a small town in northern India. In the newly liberalising India, the greatest aspiration of his parents was to ensure that he had an English medium school education, studied engineering and got a well-paying job which would enable him to purchase a larger than the one his neighbours’ children drove.
His rather uneventful life was disrupted when communal violence swept through northern India in 1992, and he became the sole witness to a brutal lynching. He scanned the newspapers for many days hoping to find the name of the victim, but he soon realised that in times like that, the media reported stories of “deaths, not of the dead”.
For a quarter of a century after witnessing that incident, he would continue to try and seek the name of the victim, whose name he remembered started with the letter M. What shook him up most was the conspiracy of silence adopted by those who knew the victim- they chose to defame the victim by describing him as a “kaamchor” who probably went back to his village, only to avoid having to confront the brutal truth of his passing.
Though, on the surface, Shubankar appeared no different from hundreds of thousands of adolescents like him, this incident changed his worldview completely. He could not find common ground with his family, which, instead of condemning the lynching, chose to justify it. This led him to drift apart from his family and create an independent life for himself in Mumbai. This estrangement also led to small but significant acts of rebellion, like the time when he took a flat on rent in his name because the landlord was not willing to have a Muslim tenant.
Shubankar would still have remained a slightly stereotypical man if not for an accident that left him physically crippled, battling PTSD and questioning every aspect of his existence. The story is told in three timelines- the schoolboy Shubankar, who is a prisoner of the middle-class aspirations of his parents; the Shabby, who has broken free from his cloistered existence and is exploring Mumbai physically, sexually and emotionally; and the post-accident Shabby who is dragging out an existence while trying to decide whether to try and put himself together again.
The narrative shifts seamlessly between the various timelines, with each chapter gently pushing the story forward. The accident is alluded to throughout the book, and by the time we see details of it, it is almost anticlimactic and opens up far more questions than can ever be answered.
What are the schisms that hold the country together? What causes people to turn on those who have selflessly helped them in the past? How are some friendships sustained while others drift apart? What compels people to forgive those who they have grievously hurt?
One Small Voice is not just the coming-of-age story of Shubank Trivedi. It is also the story of India from the newly liberalised economy of the 1990s to a society where a new class attains affluence, creating more divisions between those who have access to air-conditioned malls and those who do not. It is the story of an India where people gradually stop trying to hide their communalism and where even affluence doesn’t necessarily protect you from becoming a victim of politically sanctioned mob violence.
The book tackles many issues that are of relevance today. The invisible labour of women, the pressure on high school students to get admission into professional courses, the increased indoctrination of young people, differential expectations on men and women, growing cynicism and changing definitions of morality. What could have become a tedious social commentary is avoided because of the well-developed character of the protagonists. Each of the characters has hidden facets, and they never fail to surprise us when they react in ways different from how we expect them to behave.
The story spans a quarter of a century- a tumultuous period where the country is repeatedly rocked by mass violence. However, regardless of the magnitude of violence unleashed, it is possible for people to remain only vaguely aware of it or to completely forget about it if they were not directly affected. However, the patterns of violence repeat and will continue to do so till the cycle of violence is broken. Through the stories of the remarkable set of characters, the author shows how the country is fractured along the lines of class, caste, religion, gender and language and how the gap between the powerful and the oppressed in each of these intersections keeps widening. The book starts with fire and ends with fire; the past, the present and the future are all intertwined and will continue to be.
Yet, the book ends with hope. The hope that sanity and peace will prevail; that silent masses will finally realise, as Shubankar’s parents do, that the idea of “oneness” which has been sold to them is actually divisive.
“What matters in the history of time is not the story that dazzles today, but the one that sparkles with so much honesty it survives. Even if it is old by only one small voice.”
This book is that “one small voice” which will endure. Read it to understand the reality of India today.
[The book is published by Penguin Fig Tree. I got a review copy from the publisher, but the views are my own.]