The Solitude of Emperors
The Gods — all 330 million of them — failed the secular republic of India. The Partition riots, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (thank the multitude of gods, many say, that Gandhiji was killed by a Hindu and not a Muslim), the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. These were the blackest hours of independent India as outlined by the narrator’s Parsi mentor, the mild-mannered but sprightly Rustam Sorabjee, editor of the almost left-leaning The Indian Secularist that doesn’t sell too many copies but makes its point.
And then there was the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 in Ayodhya. As the country went up in flames, our narrator got caught, first, in the crossfire — in Bombay — and then because of the regrettable consequences — in a sleepy town atop a blue mountain in the Nilgiris. In both places, the gods were at it again: killing us for their sport. This is what The Solitude of Emperors is about.
Interspersed with streams of consciousness, sporadic lushness and high drama, this is a gripping narrative with a meticulous eye for detail. Vijay, the raconteur is from a small town in South India eager to escape from its predictabilities: caste biases, the temple that was the only place where boys and girls made twitchy eye contact, the halwa oozing with ghee at Sri Krishna Sweets. The sensitive young man turns to Bombay, desperate to seek shelter in the cloak of its cosmopolitanism.
As a journalist and a secular Indian, he is rendered a spectator to the 1992-93 riots and sinks into a “grey world” which is finally dispelled with the help of a therapist and a regime of antidepressants. He’s packed off to an estate in Meham, tucked away somewhere in the Nilgiris, to recover and also track down a story unfolding in a structure there called the Tower of God — which is, again, turning out to be a religious flashpoint, this time between Hindus and Christians.
It’s a pity that such mayhem awaits Meham, where the sky is so blue that “hard knives could have sharpened on it”, where birdsongs course through the stillness of the morning, and where the hills are clothed with cypress and eucalyptus. The rains set in, and the red soil in Meham seems to get murkier with the gods stoking communalism.
Like Ashoka, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi who contemplated in solitude — and transcended to greatness that was regal in proportion — there’s a need for a man who would be king, who’d take over the reins. The “godless” Noah is the chosen one, but even his ark overturns in the final showdown with the suave and smooth-talking bigot Rajan, while Vijay realises that he’s not man enough to shoulder the secular legacy. He escapes to a kind city in Canada, flees the “traumas that we would be unable to deal with at home”. But he also makes his own annual ritualistic peace by co-habiting with the dead (“the dead remain with us for as long as we need them”), religiously smoking at least one joint with Riders on the Storm as company, in lonely graveyards the world over on Noah’s death anniversary.
Vijay does not stay back in India to witness two of the grimmest testimonies of the breakdown of secular India: the burning alive of Graham Staines and his two young sons and, of course, the post-Godhra riots. And you can’t help but wonder what the ‘Emperors of Solitude’, in their kingdoms of heaven, felt about these hell-inducing reigns of terror — these wars “inspired by the gods” and that “will be with us for a long time to come”.