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Book Review: The Solitude Of Emperors By David Davidar

Book review

When an ordinary, familiar locality suddenly twists into a theatre of horror- a riot- it is beyond human reasoning. There is no single problem that precipitates the absurd goriness. The causes are complex and multi dimensional- economic, political, historical, religious, demographic etc...And we find it a welcome relief to leave such analyses to judicial enquiries so we can get on with our normal lives.
David Davidar’s new political novel “The Solitude of Emperors” deftly delves into the psyche of rioters and tries to find answers to this complex problem.

"Historians and economists tell us that nations are ripe for ethnic and sectarian war when
a combination of things happen at once- the blurring of ethnic boundaries which arouses the ire of the puritans, the absence of enlightened government, but most of all the advent of sweeping economic change. It is at times like these that we are at our most vulnerable, and therefor liable to fall under the spell of false demagogues and prophets. This was true of Hitler's Germany and it is true of India today.....It is in periods of great volatility brought about by an upsurge in economic activity when millions of people are severed from their moorings, when the great divide between the haves and have-nots deepen."


Davidar even has an interesting theory: He attributes the phenomenon of riots in the country to abandoned jealous gods waiting in the margins. When there is a surfeit of Gods in our universe, there is bound to be conflict between Gods at the centre of our attention and those we have abandoned over the centuries. “There are 333 million Gods –one for every three or four of us.” The abandoned gods wait patiently for the power of the new deities to fade so they can rise again to cause extensive damage. “For rioters are nothing but the children of these unholy Gods.” This is an unusual theory, but the mindless violence that convulses our cities and the periodic eruptions of hatred are so inhuman that it seems it can only be the handiwork of some unholy God.


Vijay, the narrator, who lives in K- a small town in Tamil Nadu, stumbles into journalism as a profession when the family servant runs away to join the Ayodhya project- to demolish the Babri Masjid mosque. Vijay writes a story about his servant for "The Indian Secularist" and he soon lands in Bombay working for the magazine under Rustom Sorabjee. Even before Vijay has time to settle down in the big city, the demolition of the Babri Masjid choreographs the wanton dance of death in Bombay. Vijay, who is injured in the riots, is exposed to the obscenity and the ruthlessness of the rioters.

He is sent to Meham in the Nilgiris on a working holiday to recuperate and to report on the Tower Of God, a Christian shrine. In the far removed Meham, where the only exciting prospects are the fuchsia wars, the aftermath of the demolition gently rocks its salubrious settings. It is in these mystical hills that we explore the inner terrain of a rioter. The darkness within the petty politician Rajan is yoked to historical hurt and he is determined to take over the Tower Of God. The custodian of the shrine, Professor Menon says of Rajan, “For him the question of whether that piece of rock is Hindu, Chrisitian or animist is not about religion, it’s a means to an end, and the end is Rajan’s rise to power. He dons the garb of a religious fanatic because it is useful to him.”


It is in these hills that Vijay befriends Noah, an irreverent Pessoa quoting outcast, who lives in a graveyard. Interestingly it is Noah’s description of Bombay that is exciting and full of life as opposed to the Vijay’s unimaginative details. And it is this irreverent human being that Davidar calls the Emperor of the Everyday.
I love the description of Bombay by Noah and here Davidar is in his elements.

"The greatest city in the world, or it was at any rate when I lived there for a couple of years about a decade ago. It was the best time of my life......It was a city of poets and cafes, and all-night sessions of drinking and versifying, a place to rival Joyce's Dublin or Cavafy's Alexandria or Pessoa's Lisbon: Dom hammering away with one finger at his typewriter in Sargent House, spectacles slipping down his nose, as the poems ran wild in his head, Adil holding court in his eyrie on Caffe Parade, Nissim spinning his demonic verse in coffee houses and poet's gatherings, Kolatkar with his strange fierce
epic about gods of stone, Imtiaz and the agate-eyed women who glided through her work.... What a time that was, the nights of writing poetry and drinking and partying and fucking beautiful young women we all shared, the models and wannabe actresses pulled into that vortex of passion, song and metered rhyme.......


Davidar’s narrative engages with India’s grand narrative of history and religion. But the moralistic preachy lessons in history- the interpolations aimed to instruct the youth in schools- come as a jarring note. One wonders whether there will be any takers for such didactic lessons.
(First published by The New Indian Express. Some changes have been made.)


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