Book: Diwali in Muzaffarnagar
Writer: Tanuj Solanki
Price: Rs 299
Laying bare the trauma of violence makes for excellent reportage. In fiction, however, what is interesting is the scarcely discernible change of gears that lead up to these upheavals. From a writer, such an endeavour calls for the deployment of the so-called vertical approach — the burrowing down into a character to dredge up those unacknowledged desires and split-second decisions that, in the most compelling fiction, lead to the big events. This, Tanuj Solanki excels at, and while a couple of stories in his new book Diwali in Muzaffarnagar address the communal tension that simmers in Muzaffarnagar and which boiled over in such devastating fashion in 2013, they do so only by way of setting the stage. What the writer is really interested in is laying a trail of breadcrumbs that lead deeper and deeper into the minds of his protagonists, exposing the gap between what they want and what they think they should want.
In B’s First Solo Trip, for example, we see the protagonist growing increasingly confused and resentful as his much-anticipated solo trip, instead of being the accumulation of experience he had hoped it would be, only ends up showing how little he understands his own limitations. The yearnings of the “small-town self”, as the protagonist of B’s First Solo Tripcalls it, are really what propel the stories. Most of the stories deal, in some way or other, with how different people struggle to reconcile the possibilities offered by life in the world beyond their homes and the realities that keep them from realising these possibilities. The narrator in the story Diwali in Muzaffarnagar despite leading the life that he wants in faraway Mumbai, finds that he can’t cut the umbilical cord of family expectations. He’s still hung up on his ex-girlfriend but finds himself cornered into considering an arranged marriage because that’s what his family wants, now that he’s a “top MBA”.
Characters who, even for the briefest time, step off the path laid out by family and society, often find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the fall-out. Saransh, the narrator of My Friend Daanish, tentatively explores the joys of teenage dating and the freedom of a friendship unfettered by such considerations as religion. But we’ve already been warned that this is Muzaffarnagar, which has a “particularly direct way to dealing with any trouble between teenaged boys and girls” and where children quickly learn that consorting with people from another community is somehow condemnable. So it is to the writer’s credit that even though we anticipate the horrific incident that occurs midway through the story as well as Saransh’s Everyman reaction, we remain on tenterhooks.
What threads these stories together is the awareness of our isolation from each other and from our essential selves, and the loneliness that comes from this awareness. This is most poignantly forceful in ‘The Sad Unknowability of Dilip Singh’. The story is about a poet, whose suicide forces the unnamed narrator, to re-examine everything he knew about his friend’s life and the impulses and dreams that drove his art. He characterises the early works of the poet, which clearly relies on established templates and idioms of melancholic poetry, as ‘dishonest’. And yet, as the poems get better and more authentic, the narrator finds them to be stranger and more removed from his understanding of his friend, and the isolation is complete.