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'Diwali in Muzaffarnagar' by Tanuj Solanki: A town that can’t be left behind

Tanuj Solanki’s book of short stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, is overall a description of how life has unfolded in the riot-prone town in the last few decades.

Tanuj Solanki’s book of short stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, is overall a description of how life has unfolded in the riot-prone town in the last few decades.   | Photo Credit: S. Subramanium

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Stories brimming with tragedy that shake you out of certitude

Muzaffarnagar’s a place you only ever hear of in the news. We don’t readily realise that zones of conflict are as much — if not more so — places of domicile as the ones we free-world doves are domiciled in.

People everywhere have lives, not just us in our liberated social circuits as we drop nightcaps in hip urban bars. And it turns out, a life once lived in an inescapably familiar dystopia can be more real than the ephemeral utopia most of us reading this must be revelling in.

Tanuj Solanki’s book of short stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, is overall a description of how life has unfolded in the riot-prone town in the last few decades. Diwali is a collection of connected tales of aspirational migration and being acutely mired in a place.

Muzaffarnagar, as painted by Solanki, is a place stunted in its almost comfortingly tragic quagmire — tragedy has a strong valency; it can create bonds and memories arguably stronger than any euphoria.

Solanki’s stories are brimming with tragedy; only, they wonder out loud in whispers whether tragedy implies succumbing to your lot or surrendering to your lot, and at what point exactly ambition transitions into resignation.

Chapters of a bildungsroman

Solanki’s stories leave you in limbo. The sort of limbo in which you’re forced to recognise the need to introspect because the story is so believably disturbing and relatably messy. The narrative speaks from so deep within the characters’ heads that their mind-voice sounds like it could easily be your own.

It could be you who suffers internally for a lost friend after conflating common sense with cowardice. It could be you who falls flat on the face after having struck out on your own, thinking your ‘Muzaffarnagarness’ would leave you if only you escaped it.

'Diwali in Muzaffarnagar' by Tanuj Solanki: A town that can’t be left behind

Each tale has a plot, a self-contained context, an autonomy and purpose. Yet, each tale is knotted up with the others in a way that renders each story episodic as well as epigrammatic.

Two or three stories in, you realise these aren’t just short stories; they’re chapters of a bildungsroman pretending to be disjointed by time, location, events and points of view. Characters mentioned in passing during one episode appear as protagonists in the next.

Characters who’ve extricated themselves from the tousled lanes of Muzaffarnagar are seen suffering the mundane monotony of other urban environments. Characters recall one another from across chapters in a way that entangles them psychologically even though their lives have long diverged.

Hovering cloud

You wish that for all his candid exploration of how innocent people in the periphery negotiate the simmering pall of violence, Solanki might have ventured to explore the point of view of those in the epicentre — the mind of the aggressors — of the “riot-prone-piece-of-shit town”. The imminence of strife hovers like a black cloud over the Muzaffarnagari’s mind, but the only glimpse you get of it is in a dazed POV.

While powerful in itself, that sort of treatment simply echoes Kafkaesque horror, squandering the freedom an author is given to subtitle the mechanics of any mind, especially the brutish lathi-brandishers’, a closed book in popular lit.

And yet, the book is much more than simply a humanisation of a strife-torn place. There’s a degree of depth, breadth, sensitivity and nuance in it that few Indian authors are able to achieve in a lowly-looking paperback. These stories will shake you out of your self-assured stupor of dim certitude and back into the delightful mode of re-inquiry and re-evaluation.

When he finds his narrative getting a bit too emotive and sentimental, Solanki deftly interjects with a POV story or two that are pure homages to Joseph Heller and George Orwell, dripping with the wry matter-of-factness and stream-of-consciousness-laden perspicacity of post-modern literature.

Some small-town Indians who as children were incarcerated in a regressive and hostile environment are able to grow up and casually contemplate Kerouac and silent movies. Others find themselves tugged back with a sense of resignation that Solanki rationalises through the poignancy of his storytelling. We all graduate, but we all gravitate, Solanki seems to wink.

Diwali in Muzaffarnagar; Tanuj Solanki, HarperCollins, ₹299

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 10:09:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/diwali-in-muzaffarnagar-by-tanuj-solanki-a-town-that-cant-be-left-behind/article23693800.ece

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