Review: Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi
Annie Zaidi’s Prelude to a Riot is a minimalist exposition of the fears and feelings of about a dozen people in a town, which is at the cusp of something — tensions are brewing, indignation has grown into raging entitlement among a group of estate owners, history is being dug up.
The slim novel captures the anger and anxiety of our times, exemplified by two estate-owning families, Hindu and Muslim, in this nameless place of banana and pepper plantations. One by one, members of these two households, their staff and acquaintances present a “soliloquy” of their own — vignettes of their lives, love, and politics.
“Three hundred years ago, our clan sided with the whites. My ancestors helped them bring down a brown king… The British gave us guns. Us, not them. Ever since, we have had the upper hand,” Devaki tells us. When she was in college, she and her two best friends Saju and Abu, would talk about “kings, flags, poems”. She took their politics home and argued with her father about their clan’s role in felling Tipu Sultan. “Didn’t that make us traitors?” she had asked. “Appa had shouted. Not us! They were the traitors.”
“Three hundred years’ worth of stories, clogging up the arteries of our men. Sitting tight around their hearts, slimy and thick with half-truths. It makes the dinner table noxious,” she escaped by marrying Saju against her family’s wishes and “breathed easy” for two years until Appa and her brother Vinny embraced Saju as one of their own. Now the three men, glued together by capitalism, drink together every other day partaking in casual boisterous bigotry while Devaki seethes in the kitchen. She plummets into a deep depression.
“Home is that place you can never leave,” she realises that even in her own home, she is once again an outsider — that love and choice led her right back into the prison she had so desperately wanted to escape.
Zaidi’s characters are bound together by this inescapability of home — an identity, the self, an idea imposed by othering. Fifteen-year-old Fareeda’s friends try to bully her into eating pork — yet she has no patience for her brother Abu’s foreboding. “He doesn’t want to work. It’s just an excuse isn’t it? That it is coming and he can see it coming.”
The Self Respect Forum, run by Appa, has been rallying against “outsiders” — Muslims, migrant workers, tribals, everybody but them. They glue posters with the face of a politician who “called us aliens in our own land. He lost the election and we thought, that would teach him,” says Kadir, who runs the oldest bakery in town. He has been trying to ignore it, but the writing is on the wall. “That greenish glue was filling up my mouth again… green gobs of glue, like some demon’s spit, stuck to the wall. All my walls. The walls of my stomach, my lungs.”
Abu, an MPhil student, tries to convince his family to leave. “It may seem like it is light years away, but this sort of thing, it travels at the speed of light. It will be here one night, at our gates,” he tells their Dada, the novel’s beacon of hope.
Most of Zaidi’s characters don’t see it coming. Vinny’s wife Bavna who otherwise misses nothing refuses to look at her men’s cruelties, dismissing them as carelessness. Her political apathy co-exists with domestic wisdom. Miriam, who works with both the families, refuses to acknowledge “the poison” and instead spends all her time thinking about Kadir, her married lover who “spins a long yarn of honeyed crumbs around me but never tells the truth”. Mommad, a migrant worker, appears often in others’ soliloquies but doesn’t mention them in his. Two light-eyed teenagers – Yashika, a girl from “one of the biggest estates” and Majju, a young plantation worker – become friends…
The character we know the least about appears the most in this novel. History is that character, personified by Garuda, Fareeda and Yashika’s history teacher. Snippets from Garuda’s classroom are an uncomfortable reminder of how little history we retain after school. He asks his bored bourgeois students: “You think you inherited land because of your talents? How many of you would pass a farming test?”
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Zaidi is a journalist and a playwright. The dramatic devices she employs here, in her first full-length novel, are effective because it underlines the immediacy of the work. Earlier this year, she won the $100,000 Nine Dots Prize for an essay on the ideas of home and belonging in contemporary India, which she is developing into a reported memoir to be published next summer.
Prelude to a Riot has the depth of reportage and a deep understanding of the human condition — it’s like Zaidi took the news from the last few years and stripped it down to its vulnerabilities..