Annie Zaidi’s Prelude to a Riot: A Novel(2019), published by the Aleph Book Company is a canny yet sensitive commentary on the fragility of daily life in a small town in Southern India on the cusp of breaking out into violence. Tied together through a series of soliloquies, Zaidi presents a delicate picture of how imminence of communal violence plays out in the lives of individuals, their relationships and even in seemingly the most insignificant of interactions.
Particularly notable are the women in the narrative- often the more reasonable voices, critical and with more profound interior lives.
Following is an excerpt from “Bavna’s soliloquie” from the book.
Time to go here, there, everywhere, but he doesn’t have time to get the damn pipes fixed. I’ve told Vinny fifteen times that the kitchen sink is clogged up. But of course the kitchen is my responsibility, the sink is mydomain!
Non-stop chatter. He collects gossip like an old woman. I can’t sit and listen to him all day, so off he goes in the jeep. I tell him not to trouble me, off he goes to Devaki’s. That’s the latest.
Men are funny creatures, I swear. Such a hoo-ha at Devaki’s wedding. People coming and going, everyone hada suggestion on how to break her down.
Lock her up and don’t feed her for three days.
No, beat up that fellow, Saju. Teach him to marry out of caste.
We told you not to send her to a co-ed school. You should have sent her to a reputable girls’ convent. Don’t our girls also go out to study?
Should have whipped her into shape by now.
Now? Father and son, every other evening they are lolling about in Devaki’s drawing room. They come back saying, he’s not a bad fellow, eh? And not one word about the girl. Our own girl, mind you. When I ask, how is she, what did she do today? No answer.
She came to see me yesterday when these two were out in town for the rally. Stay for lunch, I said. I must have said it fifteen times. Stay! You’re coming home after three years, I said. But no means no. Obstinate as a mule.
She didn’t speak much. Just stood here in the kitchen, twisting the edge of her saree between her fingers. I hadto supervise the cleaning of the cottages. So I said, come, you follow me and make yourself useful. Poor thing.She wandered about the rooms, touching things. Curtain. Table cover. Book. An old map of the district that used to hang in her old room. She took it off the wall and then kept folding and refolding it.
I asked her. Baby, is there a problem? I used to call her Baby. She was such a child when I first stepped into this household. Such a sweet, pointy face. Like a kitten, with her wary grey eyes. Later, in her teens, she shot up. Grew a full hand taller than me. All these years later, the look on her face is exactly the same. Like she is judging you. She wants to come closer butshe is not sure about your intent.
My first thought was, she must be pregnant. Or maybe she had a miscarriage. Three years, no news. I asked,but she shook her head. Still, I thought, it must be something like that. Either that, or else drink doesn’t sit well with Saju. Some men are like that. One beer and they turn into a different animal. Some are like dogs and some are like wild pigs. Saju looks like one anyway.
I had said that aloud once. It was before she was married. I was trying to warn her. The way he looks, I said, he’ll run to fat very quickly. Running a cafe, it is guaranteed. He will grow breasts inside his shirt. Wait and see, I told her.
It was not a wise thing to say. The thing that makes a girl run after unsuitable boys is the opposition ofher elders. It adds fuel to the fire. Where else can a girl display the iron of her spirit? The only thing she can choose is who to love. And frankly, she didn’t choose too badly. Saju has a bit of land on his mother’s side. An only son. He’ll inherit. His father has bought him the cafe. He’s doing all right. And he shows respect. Not from our caste, but okay. At least, he’s not a plantation worker. I’ve known girls who are such idiots. Just this last week, the Ladies Club secretary came over. Bursting with gossip! She was so excited, her face was red. She was not smiling, of course. One can’t smile about these things. But I could see that she was happy deep inside her belly, the way her eyes were shining. She knew who it was, but of course, she had to pretend. She did not take the girl’s name, but almost everything else,she told me. A chit of a girl, just in the tenth standard. Imagine?
A girl from one of the biggest estates. Same school as both our girls. Caught loitering in the school buildingon a Sunday morning. Not wearing her uniform either. They say she was discovered in an empty classroom with a boy. Thankfully, not in a compromising position. She was just showing him around the school, the girl claims. Turns out, he’s a worker on the plantation. The boy couldn’t even spell out his own name. Totally illiterate.
I said, Baby. See here. The nature of desire is very tricky. Delicate, like a butterfly’s wing. Love always catches you unawares. It’s like being out by the lake, seeing a ripple in the water, and perhaps the sun glints in a particular way and a tiny fish leaps up in that moment when your eye is unprepared for it. It captivates you. But the same water, the same ripple, the same sun, and the same fish may not touch your heart on another day. Love is that landscape. If someone points to a beautiful picture andsays, look! So much beauty! You see the beauty but you cannot feel it. Your heart is not warmed by it. But when nobody is asking you to observe, then you may suddenly feel it. On its own, it comes. Do you understand?