There are two sentences in Annie Zaidi’s new novel, Prelude to a Riot, that I am not going to forget any time soon: “You think you inherited your land because of your talents? How many of you would pass a farming test?”
These sentences are part of a paragraph in which Zaidi attacks the all-pervasive system of entitlement that we hardly ever openly acknowledge. We stand on the crutches it provides us with, but do not talk about it. And, in India, as Zaidi reminds us in this paragraph, entitlement grows mostly out of two factors — caste and wealth: “…white elites are thrown out of the country, yet everyone is still sitting in their assigned caste places. Some of you, you have hundreds of acres of land. Your ancestors were rewarded with land. Pampered by generations of kings, brown as well as white.”
In India, caste privilege is as taboo a subject as wealth privilege. In Prelude to a Riot, Zaidi attacks entitlement from wherever it comes — be it from wealth, caste, religion, or from the mere fact that one was born and has lived one’s entire life in a particular place.
The novel is set in an unnamed location in India. However, the mention of bananas, pepper vines, coconut trees, and family-owned estates managed by hordes of workers would suggest that the action takes place somewhere in South India.
A novel of just 192 pages, Prelude to a Riot has just a few characters, but each one of them takes the story forward in an important way. There are two families at the centre: one Hindu, the other Muslim. Both families are wealthy estate-owners, although by the time the novel opens, their glory days seem to be over. But the fact remains that they are still entitled; entitlement comes in different shapes; and other boxes besides wealth have to be ticked to get the full advantage of entitlement. And this is where the latter family falls short: Vinny, the heir of the Hindu family, has just got himself a gun licence but Abubaker, the scion of the Muslim household, is still unsure of inheriting the family wealth.
Fuel to fire
Fresh tensions arise with the arrival of new workers to the estates. It does not help that the migrant workers have names like Mommad and Majju. To add fuel to fire, there are rumours that “[those workers] have come from across the border” and are, in the eyes of the locals, “[b]loody illegals”. Appa, the patriarch of the Hindu estate, voices an opinion that sounds eerily familiar: “[those workers] can do everything. Road work, construction, rice fields, plantation work. Bomb work. They pick it up fast.” Others — in Appa’s family and outside — hold similar views: “Bomb making is not rocket science. Anybody can do it. But these people, they have one advantage. They are good at doing things with their hands. All that tailoring and wood carving and silver filigree work… The kind of work they can do, our people can never match it. Their fingers have a special something… Making money all over the world. Brassy fellows.”
The line between they and us has been firmly drawn. ‘We’ look at ‘them’ with a certain awe, marvelling at their tenacity and capacity for survival. Yet, this awe stems from a certain insecurity, which expresses itself as envy: we are envious of all that – however small – they have achieved.
“Mobile phones! Imagine? These buggers! What do they need phones for, to ring the monkeys in the forest? Huh! Didn’t have a rag to cover their assholes, did they? Now just look at them. Jeans! And phone in the back pocket.”
One character who leaves a lasting impression is Garuda, a Class X teacher of history in a local school that plans to go “International… Capital I, International.”
Through Garuda, Zaidi gives us lessons in history and contemporary politics. This is from the chapter, ‘Garuda’s Soliloquy’: “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.”
Zaidi hints at an impending explosion and we too feel it coming. Prelude to a Riot is an accurate, fearless and gripping account of the divided and uncertain times we are living in.
Prelude to a Riot; Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company, ₹499.
The writer’s new book is the novel, My Father’s Garden.