Writing on the wall: Review of Gautam Bhatia’s ‘The Wall’

Gautam Bhatia’s law-centric approach to speculative fiction marks an exciting new direction for Indian sci-fi

Updated - October 18, 2020 03:39 pm IST

Published - October 17, 2020 04:00 pm IST

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Tolkien is once supposed to have said, “I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit” . Gautam Bhatia’s debut novel, The Wall, begins with a map of a circular city called Sumer enclosed by an impassable, miles-high wall — the ultimate gated community.

Looking at it, I was reminded of the first models of the cosmos by the Babylonians or the Jains, mathematical in their simplicity. Bhatia’s novel is as much an exploration of space as it is of narrative, with the map shaping the plot. As writer Peter Turchi once argued, “The map is more than metaphor: it is an organizing principle of narrative.”

Bhatia’s city-state has an artificial river running across its diameter, which then forms a series of channels that divide it into further circles or mandalas. Each circle has an economic function and a colour to mark it out (blue is the highest). Your station in life is determined by the circle you are born in, resulting in caste-like surnames such as Prana-11 or Rama-1.

Battle of ideas

At the centre is the Forum, which, rather like Corbusier’s design of Chandigarh, forms the city’s heart. There is the Council — a kind of parliament — and around it is the tower of Shoortans, a religious order, then the Select who are the Scientists, and the Academy or university.

While Sumer is pre-industrial, the Forum as well as the Wall were built by a mysterious race of beings called the Builders who possessed advanced technology. The official gospel is that due to a primal transgression, the Builders pulled a sort of inverted garden of Eden on the humans. Once this collective penance is over, the wall will crumble.

The choicest real estate is at the centre (presumably as it receives the most sunlight, while the edges are in the immense shadows cast by the wall). While the buildings of the rich, closest to the centre, are made of stone and have wide boulevards, as one ranges outwards, the quality of life drops, finally ending with slums huddled around the circumference.

The wall cannot be breached, even approaching it is taboo; but for over 2,000 years the denizens have made peace with their confinement as they till farms, mine iron, and live their lives. There are a few discontented souls who dream of a world beyond the wall, who reject the notion that their confinement is for their own good. The novel follows one of them, Mithila, and her cohort of conspirators who dream of breaching the wall.

When the story begins, all is not well with Sumer — there are crop failures, religious schisms, elite discontent and mysterious portents in the sky. While these play out as the story unfolds, the fuel for the plot is provided by a battle of ideas, competing theories on both how this world came to be and its future arrangement. All questions and conflicts flow out of Sumer’s contested past: Who built the wall and arranged this world? What is its purpose?

Speculative fiction is a laboratory where one can isolate and miniaturise a society, with its future designed, stress-tested and implemented . Bhatia’s work falls under a subgenre of science fiction called ‘Wall around the world,’ named after a 1953 short story by Theodore Cogswell .

This speculation in turn produces an X-ray of the environment in which the book is written: Sumer is riven by caste conflicts, furious battles over history, institutional decay, and an unravelling of the mechanisms of checks and balances.

While it is easy to use the wall as a metaphor, Bhatia has rigorously thought it through. For example, same-sex relations are fine while marriage between men and women needs licences — vital in a closed system to prevent uncontrolled population growth. Nothing is written down, as it will “cage history”.

Legal structures

Humanity’s shared legends and histories are refracted and replayed — there is Plato’s cave, the legend of Icarus, Prometheus, Paradise Lost , the assassination of Caesar, even the writings of Lenin, like a tape on loop. History follows the shape of the narrative — one is reminded of Mircea Eliade’s notion of a contest between the Eastern traditions of circular or sacred time and the Abrahamic concept of linear time, where, as my political scientist friend once told me, god enters history.

SF fans expecting ray-gun duels or zooming spaceships will be disappointed. There are council meetings, moot courts, fiery public speeches, and much excitement when bills are tabled. The big finale unfolds as a courtroom drama — not a surprise, given that the writer is one of the top constitutional lawyers in the country.

In an interview, Bhatia points out that legal structures “form the hidden plumbing of the world”. This law-centric approach is something new, representing an exciting new direction for Indian sci-fi.

The genteel tone reminded me of Asimov’s Foundation novels, where violence takes place off-screen and characters engage in erudite debates. In our hyper-polarised world today, the notion that a sincere and rational argument can touch you, change your mind, seems like pure science fiction.

The Wall; Gautam Bhatia, HarperCollins, ₹399

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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