Review: ‘Prelude to a Riot’ by Annie Zaidi

Sometimes, you read something, and it confirms the thoughts you have been having all along.

In a mere 192 pages, ‘Prelude to a Riot’ dwells on a lot. And then some more. The title tells you exactly what to expect. The premise is set in an unnamed, ‘peaceful’ southern town, but the story would broadly fit into any semi-urban setting across India.

The novel is a series of soliloquies of multiple characters (mostly from two families, one Hindu and the other Muslim), newspaper articles, and letters. We spend time with this community as there is a silent but steady storm brewing. You feel the tension rise and the division widen, clearly demarcating the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

Every character has their own issues, desires, fears, and entitlement to deal with. But when it comes to impending violence, some are in denial while others can see it coming. They’re each the victim of one or more forms of intolerance: Caste, Class, Religion, Gender, Independent thought, or the intolerance shown towards the intolerant. How can you find common ground if everyone victimizes themselves in their own story?

One of the characters who stayed with me was Garuda, a history teacher who cares less about the school rules and even lesser about the syllabus. He calls the spade a spade and doesn’t hesitate to discuss topics that may be sensitive to his students and their parents alike.

Anyway. Point is, elites dislike movement. White elites are thrown out of the country, yet everyone is still sitting in their assigned caste places. Some of you, you have hundreds of acres of land. Your ancestors were rewarded with land. Pampered by generations of kings, brown as well as white. Even those who couldn’t keep their backsides attached to the throne without the help of mercenary soldiers, they doled out land as a reward, and they took it away as punishment. You think you inherited your land because of your talents? How many of you would pass a farming test?

– Garuda, in one of his lectures

This novel, winner of the Tata Literature Live Book of the Year 2020, does not get into the riot, nor is it a direct commentary of the Indian society or its politics. There are no particular twists or resolutions. However, Annie Zaidi, without coming across as pretentious, has made it hard to miss the contextual relevance of this book. Like I said at the start of this piece, it serves as a confirmation to my thoughts, especially about where my nation may be headed with the institutional control being consolidated into the hands of those who have a mission to correct historical injustices, however inaccurate (or biased?) their interpretation of history is. And it scares the shit out of me.

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