Book: When the Moon Shines by Day
Author: Nayantara Sahgal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
“Our past is your future,” rues a German student of revolutions in Nayantara Sahgal’s new novel, When the Moon Shines by Day. In this exploration of an India which has just tipped over the brink of fascism, 1984 meets Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale. Sahgal says it is located in the present (see interview tomorrow in Express Eye), but it has a couple of institutional features which are still in the future — a Directorate of Cultural Transformation, which oversees racial segregation, allegedly for the happiness of the minority, and neighbourhood book-burning fiestas, to which people are expected to contribute from their library shelves. How distant this future is depends on how compulsively we fear the worst.
The landscape is familiar, a city of well-meaning and well-heeled progressives, who meet to discuss the state of the nation in expensive hotels, where the selection of the entrée gets as much attention as the choice of political stand, and atrocities are pondered over dessert. The owner of the hotel believes that omelettes can’t be made without breaking eggs, admires Hitler and Mussolini and displays Mein Kampf in the establishment’s bookshop, right beside the latest progressive nonfiction.
The immediate backdrop is also familiar — a women’s book reading club, which serves as the support system of the protagonist, Rehana, who is an activist against torture. So is the social setting. Rehana’s young domestic help Abdul urges everyone to call him Morari Lal, in the interest of his life expectancy. Ironically, his friend Suraj is killed by cow vigilantes because he was carrying an old leather suitcase.
That suitcase had contained the last copies of books written by Rehana’s father, a medieval scholar, which had vanished from bookshelves, syllabi and catalogues. This too is familiar, and AK Ramanujan, Wendy Doniger and Perumal Murugan are notable victims. But what is new is the ritual of book-burning, with local party thugs going from door to door to collect fuel for the fire. Rehana’s new-found love writes under a pseudonym, which no longer confers protection — he has to surrender his own novel, Unholy Love, for the neighbourhood fire. The art world is also under threat, with attacks on galleries reminiscent of the persecution of MF Husain. Only national art following censor guidelines is tolerated.
This much is known turf, but the rest is novel to us. The political rhetoric which is swaying India reminds the visiting scholar of revolutions, Franz Rohner, of his own past, and he understands that it will lead the country to a dark time. His wife Gerda and he look like twins from the Nibelungenlied. It transpires that this is not accidental. Another European import is a specialist in “womb science”, and is here to teach the principles of eugenics, spiced up with a dash of jyotisha. She is a reminder of the Lebensborn clinics of Nazi Germany, set up to promote the conception of Aryan offspring. The Lebensborn children, now senior citizens, began to come out with their stories about 10 years ago.
The omelette-valorising hotelier’s wife does her bit, promoting a line of designer maternity wear to spur female fealty, for reasons of fashion, to the target set by a godman: patriotic Hindus must have at least five children. Meanwhile, a scientist is arrested for proving that the Indian population is a product of migrations, and that racial purity is nonsense. And a diplomat who has the temerity to write a book about the Taj Mahal and Shah Jahan’s personal life is forced to resign.
Planned genocide is part of state policy. Muslims must register themselves and wear a badge, and the Director of Cultural Transformation runs ghettos which are like refuges from the world, where the minority can be comfortable with their own markets, tradespeople and artisans, as he is happy to explain. The ghetto is reminiscent of Terezin, the fortress town where east European Jews were forced to retire to, after surrendering their wealth to the Third Reich, and which is a major setting in WG Sebald’s Austerlitz.
The outlook is grim, but a sudden show of strength by the marginalised brings hope to an elite, and the determination not to be disheartened. Such battles have been fought every time the idea of India was threatened. All that is different in the story is the scale of the change that has overtaken the country, and the fear that much worse lies ahead. But really, size has never mattered.
In the midst of this grim struggle, Sahgal finds room to consider, in passing, the eternal verities. In the hotel of the incredibly rich omelette fanatic, Rehana wonders who cleans the grand chandelier. A pedestrian question, but important for its very simplicity, with implications for labour relations and class. Designer furniture often inspires the same question in observers who clean their own homes. It may be illogical to extrapolate from that chandelier and conclude that Sahgal, too, cleans her home. But if she does, it would be heartening. There is a self-sufficient dignity in it.