‘… the thing you crave’: Soliloquies of Our Times
Asma Rasheed
PRELUDE TO A RIOT: A NOVEL by Annie Zaidi Aleph Book Company, Delhi, 2019, 184 pp., Rs.399
February 2020, volume 44, No 2-3

Two houses, both alike in wealth, are the scenes of Annie Zaidi’s newest work, a novel. There is going to be civil strife, for there is already blood in the streets and the air is heavy with grudges that foretell new mutinies to come. Nevertheless, it would not be fair to make two households the central protagonists of a novel that is not exactly about a pair of star-crossed lovers. For one, the narrative is structured through the soliloquies of the dozen-odd protagonists, with the choral chapters of Class 10B, or letters to the editor of the local newspaper or the editor’s responses interspersed in between. And two, the central protagonist is more an impalpable zeitgeist—resentment and reprisal, perplexity and perturbation—that is and may soon spiral out to become in the novel, and perhaps outside it as well.

Zaidi sets her story in a small town of banana and coconut trees, pepper vines and family-owned estates that run on the labour of migrant workers. The town is full of talk about ‘[b]loody illegals’ who have ‘come across the border’. Their barefoot and half-naked bodies are ‘carved out of black wood’ (p. 81) and their spines ‘made of some different stuff’ pop out of their skin (p. 83). Sixty of them, muses Vinny, the son of one household, do the work of one hundred local workers during the planting season even though they are paid less. Then there are the ‘spoilt rotten’ local tribal labourers who keep moving through the forests and yet claim to be ‘indigenous’. To add insult to injury, Vinny’s thoughts roil over, the government has issued them poverty cards, old age pension cards, twenty-five kilos of free rice, free sugar and kerosene, free schools and lunch for their children. Vinny’s family also runs a homestay comprising six cottages, prospering on the labour of his wife, Bavna, who finds the foreign tourists ‘a pain’. As their obsession with immortalizing the mundane leads her to exclaim, ‘Oh dear lord … Ant, bee, spoon, plate, donkey, car, leaf, moon…They…point a camera at it’ (p. 59).

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