Wednesday, September 19, 2007

David Davidar and The Solitude of Emperors

Have been meaning to write about David Davidar’s The Solitude of Emperors for some time now, but I’m doing a long review for a magazine and can’t put the structured piece up here until it appears in print (probably a month from now). But here are some observations, along with excerpts from a recent interview I did with Davidar.

I didn’t think much of the book when I read it a few weeks ago, but then I was asked to do the review and had to revisit it to make notes. The second time around, it’s been easier to appreciate its strong points (to write an 1,800-word review, you have to closely examine the good and bad), though I still have many reservations. It’s very trite in places, and full of annoying over-exposition: for instance, in an early passage, we are told that the protagonist, a small-town boy named Vijay, feels as circumscribed as the fish that live in a local tank. “They should have been gliding through some fast-flowing river instead of circling sluggishly within the confines of the tank,” Vijay thinks to himself. “They seemed to symbolize everything that was wrong with [this town].” The analogy (itself a pat one) might have felt less forced if the reader had been allowed to register the thought at a subconscious level, instead of being force-fed that last sentence. And there are many other such examples through the book. The Solitude of Emperors has some interesting things to say about the nature of secularism in India and the things that help fuel communal violence, but the way it chooses to express them is often problematic – potentially complex characters and themes are stifled by simple-minded treatment.

A quick synopsis: Vijay, restless and disaffected, finds a window to the outside world when he writes an article about a young boy being recruited by a right-wing Hindu organisation for the building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The article results in an interview with Rustom Sorabjee, the aging editor of a small Bombay-based magazine called The Indian Secularist, and Vijay is offered a job at the paper. Sorabjee becomes his mentor and things chug along more or less comfortably for a while, but after a horrifying personal experience during the December 1992 riots, Vijay is sent to a town called Meham in the Nilgiris to recuperate. This is to be a working holiday: Sorabjee asks him to gather information about a controversy surrounding a shrine called the Tower of God, possibly another Babri Masjid-in-the-making.

In Meham, Vijay spends his nights reading a series of essays written by Sorabjee, about three great “emperors of men”, Ashoka, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi – “the greatest Indians who ever lived…the only ones with a soaring vision for this country that transcended caste and creed”. Much of the criticism of Davidar’s book has, quite rightly, been directed at these essays – not at their content but at the way they disrupt the flow of the story. They take the form of five chapters, each a few pages long, instructive in tone (Sorabjee has written them to teach high-school students about intolerance) and scattered at regular intervals through the book, so that we read them in the same way as Vijay does. Most of the Big Ideas in The Solitude of Emperors are contained in these essays.

I asked Davidar about the didactic tone of Sorabjee’s writings and the decision to present them separately from the main narrative. His reply:

It was a deliberate decision to write it that way. Sorabjee makes it very clear to Vijay that he is writing the essays for a teenage audience, making it as simple as possible for them to understand and be inspired by the lives of these great men.”

But this is an unsatisfying answer, for it is Davidar the novelist who has given Sorabjee this motivation in the first place. And this authorial decision doesn’t work – the effect is jarring, and it makes the book seem more ponderous than it is. As a reader, one can’t escape the suspicion that Davidar took the easy way out here – by first writing these long, admittedly thoughtful and nuanced essays and then building a novel around them; presenting them as the discrete work of one of his characters, instead of finding a way to weave his ideas more naturally into the story.

“I had read so much on Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi myself,” Davidar told me, “that I could have chosen to write the book in a hundred different ways. But I deliberately chose this functional, stripped-down style.” I don’t think it was the right choice. In its final form The Solitude of Emperors is an undoubtedly readable work, but more as a textbook or a pamphlet than as a fully realised novel.

What’s frustrating is that there were some interesting possibilities here. At a time when intellectuals are becoming increasingly apathetic towards religion, Davidar has the gumption to make the point that the discarding (or undermining) of religion can never be a practical or workable solution for India, where it permeates every aspect of daily life. He also points out that it is in periods of great economic volatility that a country is most vulnerable; which is why millions of Indian youngsters, frustrated by the gap between the haves and the haves-not, easily become puppets in the hands of vote-seeking politicians who promise them security in the name of religion. And that most of these politicians are not really deeply religious themselves, they are simply clever opportunists who know how to sway public feeling.

But for all its potential, The Solitude of Emperors is full of little irritants – e.g., a non-believer naming his dog Godless and telling Vijay meaningfully “It reflects his master’s outlook on life” – that mar its overall effect.

[Will post the full review here later]

Apart from the launch of his novel, Davidar had another good reason for being in Delhi recently: the 20th anniversary celebration for Penguin India, which he helped set up in 1987. Excerpts from the Q&A:

What were your hopes for Penguin India when you started out?
For the first 5-6 years it was a very small operation and there were no major expectations. We knew it was a low-margin industry; publishing isn’t like cement, it’s accretionery, you can’t just produce the new Vikram Seth. Also, you have to remember that we were looking for good writers on the one hand and simultaneously trying to create favourable publishing conditions in India. It was a confused process and we made lots of mistakes. Publishers today have it relatively easy.

Do you still see gaps in the Indian publishing scene?
We have the writers now and we have world-class publishers based in Delhi, but we don’t have big investment in retail beyond the big cities. What we need is the equivalent of an, where an impatient consumer can order a book on his computer and have it delivered the same evening. Once that happens, the definition of a bestseller in the Indian market can rise from 7,000 to 70,000 copies, and I see India becoming the third-largest market in the world (after the US and the UK). We have the readers for it.

From the writing perspective, we have great writers in literary fiction, but a culture of genre writing needs to be developed – we don’t have much good writing in detective fiction or science-fiction, for example, though it’s happening slowly.

Coming to The Solitude of Emperors, which is very different, both in size and in its writing style, from your first book (the sprawling House of Blue Mangoes): were you aiming for a more journalistic style here? Yes, I wanted it to be as pared down as possible. I felt the subject – fundamentalism, communal violence – was so disturbing in itself that the writing didn’t need any ornamentation or gimmickry. Also, I was inspired by some of the work of Coetzee and Orwell, which have a journalistic quality.
At the same time, it IS very much a novel. Vijay’s life has a few similarities with my own – for instance, I worked as a journalist, for a secular paper called Himmat - but this isn’t autobiographical.

So there was no specific catalyst for this book?
If you mean had I experienced riots firsthand – no, I hadn’t. Nothing like that. Besides, novels take time to germinate. But one question I wanted to address through this book was: when are we able to transcend ourselves and become, as Sorabjee in the book puts it, Emperors of the Everyday? To do things that can make a positive difference.

The book suggests that economic disparity plays a big part in encouraging communal tensions.
Yes, and coincidentally I was speaking to Niall Ferguson, the historian, recently and he pointed out that countries are most vulnerable when there is economic volatility – when some people are racing ahead and others are left behind. In the Indian context, this sort of unrest makes it much easier for politicians to get youngsters worked up about their groups – their religion, their community, their differences with other groups, etc. India really is on the brink, in more ways than we realise.

There’s a line in the book: “No atheist or agnostic could have a vision for this country that would endure.” What do you mean by this?
India is so steeped in religion that the people who can make a real difference, inspire the masses, would have to be men of faith, like Akbar and Gandhi – people who are secularists in the sense of treating all religions equally, rather than being indifferent to religion altogether. Atheists can seem just as fundamentalist in their views as those they oppose.


  1. Hi Jai,

    Look forward to the full review.



  2. “India is so steeped in religion that people who can make a real difference, inspire the masses, would have to be men of faith, like Akbar & Gandhi…”

    What a sweeping generalization! India can become an economic superpower, but you know, its culture and religious beliefs would remain static and not evolve. What a naïve belief in a mono-dimensional change

  3. I found the structure annoying and the writing patronizing in parts. And what's with calling his home town "K__" - it looks like something out of Austen. Davidar says it was because he didn't want to embarrass any southern city. Please. Obviously he had no such problem with Meham. And Brother Ahimas?? More please

    “No atheist or agnostic could have a vision for this country that would endure.” Interesting that he should feel an agnostic Nehru was of less value than a vacillating Gandhi. Gandhi's past was punctuated with an expedience violence, in the Zulu War, for example.

  4. Radhika: well, Meham is a fictional city so no problem naming it - but yes, the whole K____ thing is somewhat precious and feels a bit like a Penguin Editor indulging in some Olde World-ese.

  5. What I couldn't understand -why he felt free create a fictional place (with a not-so-fictional name) for one leg of the story and then felt trapped by the fear of verisimilitude in another to use the gawky K_. And how come he didn't think of how offended us poor Haranvis would get by his using Meham?

  6. Ouch, my spleen-venting on K_ resulted in some rash typing. My comments are dotted with typos that hurt. Please read "expedience" as "expedient", insert a "to" after "felt free". And yes, it's us poor "Haryanvis".