THE SOLITUDE OF EMPERORS David Davidar
This is a liberal polemic emphasising the need for watchfulness at a time when communal forces are seeking to tear the country apart, either for personal gain or due to a misguided sense of patriotism.
It’s interspersed with pithy essays that dwell on the achievements of three Indian ‘emperors’, people who devoted most of their lives to encouraging values not antithetical to the idea of India: Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi.
For those who thought this was a novel, there are also some characters and a plot of sorts.
Which means that David Davidar’s second novel suffers from the same faults as his first: a need to preach, reams of background material and consequently, a weak-kneed narrative.
Vijay, the main character, arrives in Mumbai from a small town to take up a job in a liberal publication. He’s caught up in the horrific riots of 1992-3 and, to recover, goes to Meham, a town near the Nilgiris. Here, he stumbles across a plot to take over a local shrine known as the Tower of God.
Davidar presents two characters representing opposing forces; Noah, the town’s intelligent, irreverent ne’er-do-well, and Rajan, a communal Mumbai tycoon with a murky past. Vijay is caught between the two and eventually has to report on the outcome of their clash.
Some sections are well-done, no doubt: the initial portion dealing with the environment of Vijay’s home town, the description of his drive to Meham or the occasional metaphor such as “gravestones like weathered molars”. But Davidar’s didacticism soon becomes tendentious, leaving everything else by the wayside. His heart’s in the right place; it’s a pity it’s not in the novel.
Worth your while? In the acknowledgements, Davidar mentions books that were of help during his writing, such as Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian or Abraham Eraly’s The Last Spring. Read those instead.