One Small Voice by Santanu Bhattacharya review – meltdown in Mumbai

Three quarters of a century have handed since India’s independence. Now, midnight’s great-grandchildren face a rustic fractured mentally as a lot as socially: half democracy, half westernised, half madhouse, half world superpower, the place gurus, imams and gyrating TikTok stars vie for the hearts, souls and wallets of lots of of tens of millions. “You recognize, the issue with this nation is that we imagine cash will remedy every little thing. It doesn’t,” says a Muslim character in Santanu Bhattacharya’s debut novel, his household victims of non secular riots. It might appear trite, however this was certainly the hope that India lived on till the mid-2010s. But a rising tide means floating boats now not. The widespread folks have turn into cross-tickers at elections, one other character says. They’re “little specks of mud … They are going to by no means be something extra, and there’s nothing lesser left for them to be.”

Shubhankar “Shabby” Trivedi is the witness moderately than hero of One Small Voice. As a baby at a marriage, he watches a mob immolate a younger Muslim tailor – “a column of fireside with the face of a person on it, flames licking the physique” – and is profoundly affected. The novel follows his makes an attempt to outrun the psychological and societal forces haunting him, as he strikes from the socially conservative northern metropolis of Lucknow to search out life and freedom within the cosmopolitan, hard-drinking, dope-smoking, anything-goes fantasyland of mid-2000s Mumbai.

The writing is unshowy, scientific, instinctively humane. India is right here in all its senses, Mumbai the main focus: “a mad dirty unruly untamed unfazed uncowering lovely smooth blue-green metropolis”, a spot of “flogging of flesh, tearing of freshly starched cotton, flying of mud, dragging of our bodies, breaking of bones, cracking of glass, shrieks of hatred”, one which surrenders to “postmonsoon stupor, letting its harsh solar go limp, a haze descending to eye degree”.

The novel is epic in scope and but composed of intimate moments, with the sinuous double timeline exploring how the Shubhankar of the 2000s, craving for freedom past the horizons imposed by his mother and father, turns into the burnt-out, semi-invalid dependant of 2013, sufferer of a mob assault and a subsequent psychological breakdown. Even after the assault, he and his mother and father play their allotted roles, “indignant mum or dad and indignant son”. “Upbringing is all about strictness and self-discipline. An excessive amount of love makes youngsters comfy,” says Shubhankar’s grandmother, a brilliantly sparky presence. Being a “kaamchor” – workshy – is the worst insult a mum or dad can use.

The ambiance is quietly doom‑laden from the outset. Many subcontinental readers will guess that Shubhankar’s assault has one thing to do with the 2008 Mumbai terrorist assaults. Bhattacharya wrongfoots them. Indian politics has turn into an all-out race to court docket the newly globalised, piously Hindu decrease center courses; Shabby’s informal menage a trois along with his flatmates Ganjeri, a hippy Muslim who slowly finds his religion, and Shruti, who can’t “snigger with abandon with out ten males turning to look”, turns into the Indian interfaith expertise in miniature. They start to tread “on eggshells round one another, looking for set off warnings, altering topics to maintain the peace”.

The e-book is a pointillist, surgically noticed portrait of its foremost character, as he encounters the petty social cruelties and unfulfilled great thing about the Twenty first-century Indian nation – at work, at house, at events, on seashores, highways and within the stolen moments that make up his shattered life. The plot is slow-burning, fuelled by rising anxiousness, and splendidly pure, with threads weaving out and in.

Bhattacharya properly is aware of the central downside of Twenty first-century Indian writing, by which foreign-educated, non-resident graduates inform the tales of people who find themselves “unvoiced, lie silent, witnessing their lives being reincarnated on different folks’s tongues” – as he refers back to the competing explanations of Shubhankar’s breakdown and withdrawal from life. He does succumb at instances to the stress on BAME writers within the west to showcase each inequality, each injustice, each strata of society – if novels had any social foreign money left in any respect in India, this one could be dismissed by the federal government because the work of one more Oxford-educated “anti-national”. But it’s the assured management of the writing that endures, and the hopefulness and craving for a greater future that infuses the latter a part of this e-book. A portrait of each intolerance and forgiveness, progress and letting go, One Small Voice shall be top-of-the-line debuts this 12 months.

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Rahul Raina’s How to Kidnap the Rich is printed by Abacus. One Small Voice by Santanu Bhattacharya is printed by Fig Tree (£14.99). To assist the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Supply costs might apply.

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