A protagonist is tossed between love, ambition and duty towards her riot-hit community.
Communal riots are perennial subjects of enquiries, judicial processes and politics. This novel, set against the backdrop of two riots, is a brilliant narrative on the outcome of riots, and the plight of the vicitims.
It evokes empathy with its portrayal of women in the midst of meanness and poverty. As the husbands languish in jails, housewives are left to look after their children and ailing parents. While vivisecting the anatomy of riots and poverty, the novel weaves a poignant love story. It is a critique against communal violence, dowry, polygamy and societal and economic exploitation.
The transition of time and space in the novel, set in various locales, is praiseworthy. It is also a eulogy to the new woman: the main character, Nafsan, is a determined medical student who is realistic and aware of her strengths and weaknesses.
A plethora of characters and events present a profile of the slum in this well-researched work. Each character stands out, forming strong strands of the story’s fabric. The description is graphic: “The slum also meant street fights, brawls, cheap used condoms strewn around, country liquor in pouches and painted women walking suggestively around.” The novel forcefully establishes that riots are not caused by caste rivalry, antagonism and ethnic profiling. Riots are never triggered by one community, and contrary to popular belief, violence never erupted overnight. It is agents provocateurs that provide resources and poison the guiltless minds to indulge in violence irrespective of castes or religions. The story unfolds from the perspective of a young boy, Basheer, who is forced to migrate from a village to the slum with his parents and siblings. It was hard for him to get used to the rotten air, garbage, and filth everywhere; the foul smells were nauseating. He meets a young beautiful girl Nafsan. Words fail to describe Basheer’s intense love for her even decades after they meet.
Nafsan is born of a Hindu mother, who is raped by her employer. Her husband loves her intensely but is sick in jail and is undergoing imprisonment for murder. Nafsan obeys step-father’s instructions and foregoes her love for Basheer. She is ambitious but never forgets the reality of her circumstances; she struggles hard to fulfil her dream of becoming a doctor and serving the slum-dwellers. She leads a protest against a proposed demolition of the slum and wins the case. She eventually moves away from the slum and, even before completing medical graduation, begins her practice. The denouement is both dramatic and not judgmental.