Interview: Annie Zaidi, Author, Prelude to a Riot - Hindustan Times

Interview: Annie Zaidi, Author, Prelude to a Riot

Hindustan Times | ByChintan Girish Modi
Nov 06, 2020 08:22 PM IST

A timely tale about religious intolerance, political propaganda, and fragile intimacies, Prelude to a Riot is one of the five books shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature

184pp, ₹499; Aleph
184pp, ₹499; Aleph

When poet Louise Glück was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, she said, “My first thought was that I won’t have any friends, because most of my friends are writers.” Is this the kind of thing that bothers you as well? You won the $100,000 Nine Dots Prize in 2019. This year, you are on the shortlist for the Rs25 lakh JCB Prize for Literature. Have writer friends started treating you differently?
My friends and I have been very supportive of each other over the years. I cannot imagine that a prize would change how we feel. If it did, then that would tell me something about the sort of friendship it is and I don’t think I’d miss it too much. I know that if one of my close friends was up for a prize, I would feel nothing but joy. And I expect my friends feel the same way.

How did you arrive at the title for your novel Prelude to A Riot? I am also curious to know if there is a reference here to Shashi Tharoor’s 2001 novel Riot: A Love Story. Apart from the fact that both you and Tharoor are dealing with the theme of religious intolerance, there are some similarities with respect to form as well: the use of letters, soliloquies, advertisements and news reports. Your thoughts?
I have sometimes struggled with appropriate naming for my work. Even as a journalist, I always struggled with headlines and captions. However, I usually do have an internal ‘title’ that tells me what this is about and why I am writing it. With this book, I knew it was about the events that precede communal violence, and that it is not spontaneous, so I gave it a working title of Prequel to a Riot, but when it was sent to the publishers, they suggested changing it to Prelude, in keeping with the lyricism it suggested.
I read Shashi Tharoor’s Riot many years ago and remember its story but not the form, so I can’t comment on the various narrative techniques used. I do recall that it was about the aftermath of violence and someone trying to figure out who was responsible. In terms of mood, I believe it is closer to Nayantara Sahgal’s Storm in Chandigarh. That was also a love story set against political machinations, violence hinted at in the background. Thematically, my novel is different, though, in that it is less concerned with the fate of individuals it describes and more with the fracturing of the body of the town itself. It is less the event of violence, and more the invention of it.

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In the acknowledgements section, you mention that author Musharraf Ali Farooqi “was an early reader of this text, before it was a proper novel.” In what way did his feedback and friendship nurture your work? Who are the other writers you turn to when you need critical inputs, encouragement or even validation?
What I share with writer friends depends on the genre I am working in. With non-fiction, I tend to go with my own instinct, or I work with the editor at the publishing house or magazine. Musharraf is one friend who has been very supportive; he gets my fictional sensibility and its innate direction. Mridula Koshy is another writer friend; we met in a peer critique group where we honed our craft and found our first book deals. The group dissolved eventually but I have counted on Mridula’s support and feedback and guidance and solidarity. There are other writer friends, some from my college days, from journalism circles, from theatre or film circles. I remember spending afternoons at Prithvi theatre in Mumbai, where I was approached by others who wanted to narrate their stories even though I barely knew them. They just wanted someone to listen to their ideas, and so I did. People who work in the arts, or in media, need a web of support because we can only grow in an environment where others are also putting out challenging, unexpected work.

In Prelude to A Riot, your character Devaki says, “Conversion means someone is unhappy. If people gain freedom, happiness, anything, even money, why should they not convert? It is the right thing to do.” To what extent do you agree with her? How do you respond to the anxiety around ‘love jihad’?
I think that people should have the right to convert to any stream of religious faith they choose, and it is not for us to judge their motivation. Look at the opposite circumstance. A culture that discourages or forbids conversion is an oppressive culture and there is a high risk of self-appointed guardians of the faith (any faith!) enforcing adherence to a single stream of ritual, or else… It leads to spiritual decay because religion, like everything else in life, needs air and sunshine. A humane approach to faith, I believe, makes room for a diversity of beliefs and practices. However, faith itself is cancelled out when you forbid anyone from converting. What does it mean to belong to a faith if you are held there by force, through not having other options or because you are terrified of the consequences of changing your mind?
I don’t think the anxiety around ‘Love Jihad’ is real. This is a religious-political campaign based on the idea that individual citizens, young people, in particular, do not have the right to their own lives and opinions. Those who seek to prevent interfaith or intercaste marriages are those who think of children as property, to be disposed of as they see fit. This is not about anxiety. It is about disrespecting your own children’s bodies and hearts.

Let’s talk about Garuda, the school teacher in this book, who says, “White elites are thrown out of the country, yet everyone is still sitting in their assigned caste places.” How does this statement apply to the literary establishment in India in terms of who gets published and promoted, invited to festivals and residencies?
All establishments operate within a certain language of power. The literary establishment must contend with language itself. English, of course, is currently one of the more powerful languages, and most festivals are organised around English language writers. This is partly because it is a bridge language and at this point you can’t do an international festival in India without English being dominant, even if you did look beyond American or British authors. Authors whose work is not translated into English don’t get invited much. It is the same with residencies. The truly enabling ones, where you don’t have to pay for room and board, need your work to be available in English. Besides, Indian authors whose work is not published in the UK or USA don’t get invited there very much. There’s no getting away from that. However, things are changing slowly and translation has a lot to do with it.

The newspaper editor in Prelude to A Riot writes, “We must not forget that anybody who seeks to block the flow of ideas, or people, creates artificial hurricanes.” What are your thoughts on the trend of ‘cancelling’ and ‘deplatforming’ authors who take on ideological positions that are seen as politically incorrect, fascist, or problematic because of their misogynistic or transphobic implications?
This is something I struggle with. Cancelling sounds like a good idea until you begin to see people you hold in some regard being shut down or prevented from gaining access to new audiences. The thing is, if you block an idea, you show the world that ideas are block-able, not just from a conservative or regressive position but from a progressive or civic-minded position. It is very easy for fascists or misogynists to steal the vocabulary and method of progressives or those who are on the margins, and turn it against the most powerless people in every country.
A secondary problem is that well-intentioned people become over-eager in their desire to counter politically incorrect positions, and refuse to recognize the good in the person they are attacking. They fail to acknowledge that people often say things they haven’t really thought through fully. There is little pause for ideological nuance. Just as people’s histories are different, their needs are different, similarly people’s embrace of humanity is different. On the other hand, if we never struggled against ideas, we would never be able to achieve change. Criticism is essential and sometimes it takes the form of denying entry to a person who is seen as representing an idea. Even so, it is one thing for satyagrahis to shout ‘Simon, go back!’ and risk having their heads cracked open, and it is another thing for students to threaten a teacher or file criminal cases against him for expressing an opinion. All forms of denial can’t be measured by the same rule.
One problem (in my view) is that many of those who take the decision to de-platform or uninvite someone are driven by fear rather than persuasion; the fear of becoming unpopular among students, for instance, or of being seen as incorrect themselves by peers. Decisions driven by fear have a cascading effect. One university’s decision to cancel one talk could lead to everyone else doing the same, and not necessarily because they have engaged with conflicting ideas and the friction thus generated. There is a risk of pushing people further apart and confining them to ideological silos. And once fear recedes, what remains? Not better politics. What remains is the memory of fear and it may turn upon those who made it fearful, or start to insidiously move towards a more immoral, indefensible position. Which is to say that I don’t really have a solution. I just think that one must think a little harder about the change one seeks and how it might be achieved.

Interviewer Chintan Girish Modi
Interviewer Chintan Girish Modi

I was struck by this statement in Mommad’s soliloquy in Prelude to A Riot: “Those who do not like the way things are done here, they can leave.” On the one hand, it made me think of the phrase ‘Go to Pakistan’, which is often used to crush political dissent in India. On the other hand, it reminded me of a line from your recently published memoir Bread, Cement, Cactus: “The spiritual fluidity of India is one of the things that gives me balance.” How do you make sense of the exclusions and the confluences that exist simultaneously?
That is Mommad listening to a politician’s speech. In certain contexts, this turns into a ‘Go to Pakistan’ moment. In other contexts, it can also be the assertion of regional dominance. It is a bullying sort of statement from the sort of person who assumes that ‘here’ is a place that is his to describe and anyone who doesn’t unquestionably obey him does not belong here by rights. Exclusion and confluence cannot coexist. This is one of the things I have learnt through writing Bread, Cement, Cactus. The spiritual fluidity of India indeed gives me balance, but that is only so long as it exists. Cultural and spiritual fluidity has been increasingly threatened over the last century and as it recedes, it cedes space to a more intensely experienced exclusion.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.

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