Fictionalising history

NEW Indian writing often manifests itself in the avatar of reportage-turned-fiction. That makes perfect sense in an age of market-driven media, which is no longer a tool for radical social reform or the dramatic exposes of the 1980s. I've no quarrel with that. Because, in the hands of a gifted writer, facts and recorded history can be transformed into near-poetic transcendence — as in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Pestonji, a journalist-activist from the 1970s who participated in campaigns to change rape laws, gain rights for slum dwellers, and shape a fair deal for street children, was deeply impacted by the Bombay riots of 1993, that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Her first-hand experiences "fuelled her resolve to fight all shades of communalism and parochialism, including that which she encountered in her miniscule Parsi community", according to a note on the author.

Against this backdrop, what measure of success does Pestonji achieve? Her debut novel, which follows a collection of short fiction titled Mixed Marriage and Other Parsi Stories, works at multiple levels. As an entry point into the public stances and inter-personal dilemmas of the Parsi community. As a trajectory of the political evolution of Pervez, a young Parsi woman liberated from her past with the collapse of her marriage to a Christian. As a compassionate, but topical, look at our collective lives in the throes of saffronisation, communal divides, and societal disparities, highlighted by the post-Godhra strife.

Who are we, as a people? Where are we headed? What defines an individual within the bounds of nationhood? Is secularism a valid ideal as the ground shifts beneath our feet? These questions remain uppermost in the reader's mind throughout the novel.

Pestonji's novel is not slick; it does not linger on the tongue as quotable quotes. Nor does her prose, honed by years of journalistic rigour, tantalise with its vividness or lyrical ambivalence. Her narrative, sometimes fluent, occasionally self-conscious, could have been toned to a suppler flow with taut editing. Her fictional flair surfaces best in outlining minor characters, in rendering diverse accents, in sketching vignette-like scenes.

Through the story, we share Pervez's journey from naivet� to political and emotional maturity, from the upmarket cocktail circuit of the gymkhanas and Marine Drive to Marxist thought and social action through Chalo Ayodhya campaigns, art auctions and the Governor's peace march, from sexual liberation to initiation into communal awareness. It's when Pestonji takes refuge in rhetorical flourishes that her narrative turns patchy, alienating the reader.

Overall, despite the cut-and-thrust of debate and vivid social encounters, Pervez does not quite make the grade as a full-fledged character. Her defiance of the family's comfortable lifestyle, her tentative venturing into Dharavi, her acceptance of previously unexplored societal shades, her first steps into untested waters, lack conviction in terms of realisation. What motivates her? Where does she draw courage from? Why does she choose to lead a double life for so long? The answers are hard to find on Pestonji's pages. That makes the reader wonder whether Pervez would have been more palpably real, had the novelist opted for a first-person narrative voice.

Yet, despite a certain authorial ingenuity, I'd hesitate to write off Pervez as a debut novel. Because of a distinct sensibility, glimpsed episodically, that sets it apart. A sensitivity that makes Pervez cue into the world of her impoverished Tehmie Masi in Jogeshwari, hungry for her chocolate biscuits and creature comforts. Or allow young Munawar from Dharavi to share her lunch and even shower in her fastidiously maintained bathroom. Or spend a riot-torn night with a Goan family in Dharavi. These actions, more than her positioning among her politically-aware circle, convince us of her human potential, however tentative.

As we share Pervez's life, multiple angles on the Ayodhya and Godhra issues open up through the conversations between characters. We overhear their debates by the poolside and at parties, at the college canteen and on the seafront, in bed and in hospital. A youthful victim among the marginalised perceives post-1993 Bombay as unsafe for Muslims. A Hindu doctor feels conscience-stricken at being unable to stem the bloodshed. A corrupt real estate magnate cheers as neighbouring slums go up in a blaze.

Each triggers a slew of questions, both to the individual reader and to the body politic. Whose truths are these — yours, mine or ours? Does journalism render practitioners insensitive to the faces that people the events? Can fiction recast these reports in a more enduring form? Pestonji's may not be a first extended fiction work to write paeans to, but it is not one to dismiss, either. When the stacks of old newspapers and microfilm are confined to the bonfires of the past, her fictionalised realisation will bear testimony to the troubled truths of our times. That's when reportage in fictional guise will prove its credentials to posterity. And re-validate the words on the subtitled cover — "a novel".

Pervez: A Novel, Meher Pestonji, HarperCollins India, 2003, p.318, Rs. 295.


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