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Chronicle Of An Hour And A Half review: When the mob takes over

In Saharu Nusaiba Kannanari’s debut novel, the victim and the perpetrators are all from the same community

In the book, hate is fuelled by the faux-urgency of WhatsApp and its dangerous, easily-forwarded fictions.
In the book, hate is fuelled by the faux-urgency of WhatsApp and its dangerous, easily-forwarded fictions. (iStockphoto)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Chronicle Of A Death Foretold (1981) uses a faux-journalistic voice dripping with irony and foreboding in order to recreate the murder of a man named Santiago Nasar. Nasar is killed by a pair of twins whose unmarried sister he slept with, thus “defiling” her. Saharu Nusaiba Kannanari’s enterprising, frequently brilliant debut novel Chronicle Of An Hour And A Halfsignals the connection with Marquez’s book not just with its name, but also the contours of its plot.

Here, a 25-year-old man called Burhan is targeted by three brothers (and their father) after he sleeps with their NRI brother’s 40-year-old wife Reyhana. The setting is Vaiga, a Kerala village nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats. During a seemingly never-ending thunderstorm, a WhatsApp-fuelled hate campaign puts Burhan firmly in the village’s crosshairs—until there’s a mob baying for his blood, just 90-odd minutes later as the title indicates. As does Marquez, Kannanari uses a non-linear narrative with a profusion of narrators, each allotted their own “point-of-view” chapters.

After a somewhat sluggish opening, the novel comes into its own around page 20, once the stage is set and the major players introduced. Kannanari then deploys fast-paced, missile-grade descriptive paragraphs about the inner lives of these people, including a searing indictment of the way women have little control over their reproductive choices and their own bodies. The passage takes the form of the internal dialogue of Nabeesumma (mother to Burhan and his four brothers, none of whom have a job and are dependent on her like their father), and is one of the best literary passages I have read so far this year.

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“I pretended that they were the children of a dead brother I never had. But they grow on you, children, and even though at first they were the limbs I never wanted, they soon became the limbs I couldn’t cut off. And slowly I began to love them,” writes Kannanari in Nabeesumma’s voice, tackling the idea that women are born to nurture, that motherhood is somehow a sacred calling and women cannot want anything else. And yet, as Nabeesumma goes on to tell us, the body betrays the independent, defiant mind, taming one into compliance.

 

Front cover of the book.
Front cover of the book.

Throughout Kannanari’s book are women and girls who are similarly stifled—girls are taught, at unconscionably young ages, how to prevent drawing the wrong kind of male attention. The individuality of middle-aged women is frowned upon, as is any narrative framing that sees them as more than wives or sisters or mothers. You can see this, for example, in the way Reyhana’s daughters (only slightly younger than her lover Burhan) are depicted. Significantly, when Reyhana thinks about her husband and her lover in conjunction, she sees both as dependencies, albeit of very different kinds. She is bound to one through terror, and the other through passion.

The passion/terror duality is so central to the women of Vaiga that almost every interaction they have with a man swings to one of these two extremes. It is indicative, also, of Kannanari’s other major stylistic forbearer here—Don DeLillo, whose prescient 1991 novel Mao II provides Kannanari with the epigraph to the book : “The future belongs to crowds”. Mao II, a highly eccentric meditation on individual choices versus the will of the crowd was written partly as a response to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989, which DeLillo saw as mob behaviour.

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The book could scarcely have arrived at a more opportune time, considering its emphasis on the power of the mob. Mob-engineered violence has spiked over the last five-six years, and while such incidents are often marked by one community targeting another, in Kannanari’s novel the victim and the perpetrators are all from the same community, their hate fuelled by the faux-urgency of WhatsApp and its dangerous, easily-forwarded fictions. It is no longer “us vs them” for the perpetrators, this is a case of turning against “our own”. Across all sections of society and across time, women exerting sexual agency has always brought out our ugliest aspects. This is a historical and secular truth, describing everybody who lives here.

For a novel covering such dark, deeply uncomfortable emotional territory, it is a surprisingly breezy read, thanks to Kannanari’s insouciance and take-no-prisoners style. This is a highly accomplished debut that steers clear of convenient writerly choices.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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