India today is a nation of frayed seams. Prelude to a Riot tells the story of one such unraveling in a small Southern town with the help of two families – one Hindu and one Muslim. Written as soliloquies, across three generations, it provides an insight into the thoughts of different actors, and how the religious fault lines crop up.
From little Fareeda being forced to eat pork by her ‘friends’, even bestie Yashika, to shopkeeper Khalid being nudged to provide free food to the members of the fascist Self-respect forum, the air in the town is thick with prejudice. Fareeda’s brother Abu can see the writing on the wall. His own relationship with Saju has soured. Once, the three of them – Devaki, Saju and him – used to speak of cohesion, syncretism. Today, much to Devaki’s angst, her husband Saju is counting mosques in the area.
The growing ‘Us versus Them’ debates have permeated her household. Her father, one of the members of the forum, is keeping track of ‘outsiders’ who work on the plantations, including his own. He is happy to be paying them less than the locals, but has no objections raising questions on their nationality. His worldview is pumped by a false sense of history – of belonging to a martial race and claims of being the original inhabitants. One, where siding with the British to defeat the Mughals is seen as heroic and not a betrayal. Instead, as a self-appointed guardian, he is noting who is buying which land in which area.
When it comes to history, Garuda, the school teacher, has some essential lessons. “We thrive on chaos…what we don’t tolerate is social mobility,” he says of India, touching on the crux of the matter. Religion is used by politicians to foment trouble, but it is the status quo that’s the desired outcome. So a lesson is warranted when a plantation boy gets friendly with the daughter of the owner. That he is found face down in a ditch, without a trial or defence doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
It’s not like Dada, Abu’s grandfather, can’t recognise the signs or see what’s at play. He worries for the kids, who he raised on his own, after their parents passed away, but he is not keen to leave. He has toiled on this land all his life. These lines from his son’s books still resonate: “Who could I hurt without damning my soul? Who in this world is not my own?“
People blinded by hate for the ‘other’, however, can’t see the inherent truth in these words. Through this little town, the author has tried to show a larger picture playing out throughout the country. The conversations, doubts, anxiety – all feel very real, especially from the minority point of view, which is what makes this book important in today’s context. With so-called vigilantes and guardians taking over the rights to declare who is Indian and who is anti-national, it’s as Garuda says, “no big colonial sword needs to come down and slash the fabric of nation. Muscle by muscle, atom by atom, we are being torn from within, we are our own bomb.”