Review: The Wall by Gautam Bhatia
Legal scholar Gautam Bhatia’s first novel works with many of the classical tropes of utopia, or dystopia as utopia gone wrongUpdated: Sep 25, 2020, 17:44 IST
The Wall is speculative fiction set in the future in the imaginary city of Sumer, which is surrounded by the eponymous wall that appears to be impenetrable and insurmountable. This is Gautam Bhatia’s first book of fiction. He has previously been an editor of the internationally-awarded speculative-fiction magazine, Strange Horizons. In his other avatar, he is a legal scholar and has published two books on the Indian constitution. Bhatia’s first novel is not just an inverse anagrammatical exploration of ‘the law’, it is also an allegorical examination of the present state of democracy.
At a time when major leaders of the world such as the US president have glorified wall building, Israel has continued to build and maintain its walled segregations and occupations, and that model is sought to be replicated in other new and old territories of the world, a metaphoric discussion of walls and all that they preclude seems more than warranted. The Wall imagines what happens to a state and its people when it completely isolates itself. The city of Sumer has been secluded from the outside world by its fortifications from a long-forgotten time. The priests, called the Shoortans, are trying to build a single origin myth to justify and protect the wall. A group of youth that calls itself the Young Tarafians is out to try and break through to the other side.
What the wall precludes most strongly is imagination itself. Like outdated and authoritarian laws, which the ruling elite of Sumer seems to now push through, the wall destroys the very ability of seeing other horizons than the normative. Sunrise is called ‘wallrise’, and the citizens cannot imagine a pure horizon where land or water meet the sky without the presence of a man-made barrier. Mithila’s tall task is to get the people to imagine this horizon. It is no wonder that she and the Young Tarafians are influenced by a poet-prophet figure, Taraf, in their quest. Taraf’s poetry gives them the means to soar and reimagine a world without walls.
The novel works with many of the classical tropes of utopia, or dystopia as utopia gone wrong. Sumer is an attempt at a perfect society where many of the attempts at equality, freedom, and happiness seem to be falling wide off the mark. The novel also takes into account many of the global social problems of utopianism and also some specific Indian ones. Sumer’s marriage laws, which are aligned with the division of the city into professional circles, making marriage across circles extremely difficult, are its attempt to solve the overpopulation problem. However, the laws smack of class prejudice in practice, and may be read as a comment on caste as well. Inter-class/caste love, which often meets with lynching squads and honour killings in our own time, is no longer easily allowed by law in Sumer. At the same time, same-sex love is preferred even across groups, since it does not affect population growth. It is called the pure love, harking back to Platonism.
Other references to Plato also abound, such as the perception of reality itself as glimpses of shadows of the ideal. In Sumer, it is the great wall of the city that prevents a witnessing of the outside world, the reality that Sumer’s hierarchy is not ready to see. Sumer itself is thought to be the creation of mythic Builders, whose design is unfathomable. Their myth-making becomes religion, which the Shoortans advance to hold power, parallel to the somewhat secular, albeit classist and exclusive law of the Elders who are the law makers. The scientists of the Select provide a secular and dry voice of reason.
Freedom of speech is still held to be a cardinal virtue in Sumer, which allows the Young Tarafians to make bold statements questioning the status quo. But there is always a lingering threat of emergency to be invoked by the Elders, and we are told of revolutions in the past that were brutally suppressed.
But in the present moment of Sumer, there are apocalyptic celestial signs that allow the Young Tarafians the space to make grander claims and manoeuvres to imagine life beyond the walled city and its laws. It is the young who are full of hope, adventure, and idealism, and who must question the old and the static. In the early part of the book, as some of the prime characters go running about their schemes, the atmosphere is almost that of a children’s or young adults’ adventure book. One group of the privileged young, aptly called the Hedonists, only seeks thrills. Still, the onus largely remains on the young as agents of revolution, and the author attempts to establish the gravity of this. The reader identifies with and wishes to know the fortunes of Mithila but a real edge or serious purpose remains distant, though a few deaths and disappearances do enforce a greater sense of urgency. While older mentors may help them from behind the scenes, it is the Young Tarafians who must challenge the limits of outdated and insular norms. There is also an elaborate court defence, reminiscent of Plato’s teacher being tried for corrupting the youth.
It is the young who must undertake the flight of Icarus even if they are to be scalded by the sun. It is as if it is incumbent upon the youth to overreach in their quest for new horizons, to work their way beyond legalizing limits and challenge and open up a closed world. As Samit Basu writes in the blurb for the book, The Wall, is a story, “of hope, revolution, and learning to see,” beyond given limits. A fast-paced gripping read, it is an important addition to Indian and world speculative fiction.
Maaz Bin Bilal is a poet, translator, and cultural critic. He teaches literary studies at Jindal Global University.