Chandan Pandey prefaces his slim but shockingly powerful novel with a cryptic disclaimer. “Everything in Legal Fiction is fiction,” he assures the reader. “All that is fiction is fiction, of course, but even the truth is fiction.” Then, following these enigmatic statements, he delivers a piercing parting shot: “If the people, stories, places and incidents at any point appear to be true, it is our collective misfortune. We advise you to consider it a fault of the imagination and move on.”
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Flawlessly translated by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari from Hindi, Pandey’s disturbing novel, aptly described as an “existential thriller” by its English publisher, is premised on an incident that took place in Ramnagar, Uttarakhand, in 2018. In May that year, a Sikh police officer called Gagandeep Singh shielded a Muslim man with his own body as an angry mob pounced on him for the “crime” of having a Hindu girlfriend. It was one of the many instances of an attempted lynching that is now all too common in 21st century India, triggered by vengeance for “love jihad”, an unfortunate term that has become normalised in mainstream society, and even legalised in some states.
Pandey sets his plot in a mofussil town he calls “Noma”, near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of communal violence, exacerbated by the state’s divisive political rulers. The scaffolding for the murderous core of his story is provided by a thwarted and embittered love affair. The narrator, Arjun Kumar, is a city-bred acclaimed Hindi writer who receives a call from his former girlfriend, Anasuya, out of the blue after years. Arjun had broken up with her, partly voluntarily but also due to the threat imposed by her vindictive brothers, to marry a woman of his own caste, Archana, who comes from influential stock. In contrast, Anasuya defied her family’s wishes and married Rafique Neel, an idealistic scholar, who teaches the poetry of great Hindi writers like Tulsidas, Premchand and Surdas to students at a college in the rural backwaters. The two had eloped with the help of friends and well-wishers, with Anasuya’s siblings hot on their trail, and managed to cobble together a life of their own, in spite of the insidious hostility from a section of their small-town society.
As Arjun’s and Anasuya’s paths cross again, Rafique has been missing for over a day, Anasuya is seven months pregnant, and Arjun is grappling with the complicated dynamics of his own conjugal life. But Archana urges him to travel to Noma to stand by his distressed ex—unwittingly setting him off on a chilling adventure. Rafique, Arjun finds out from his loyal band of students, was planning to stage a street theatre performance depicting the bravery of a local police officer, Amandeep Singh, who had saved a young Muslim man from the hands of a bloodthirsty mob. As though this idea wasn’t dangerous enough, Rafique was also preparing to put up the play at an annual gala, organised to celebrate the Hindu festival of Janmashtami. It was an inspired thought, to allow art to mirror life, like the mouse-trap play in Hamlet. Pandey’s own novel, drawn from a similar real-life incident, also stands upon an analogous metafictional scaffolding.
By the time Arjun reaches Noma, Janaki, another student of Rafique’s, who is a member of his theatre group, has vanished too. The air is thick with a whisper campaign about the two being in a relationship and a video clip, purportedly proving this suspicion, is circulating on WhatsApp. But the police are reluctant to file an FIR about Rafique’s disappearance and the local big shots are convinced he is nothing but a “love jihadi”—Rafique’s mission in life, they believe, is luring Hindu women with false promises. Such aspersions are repeated as though they are the incontrovertible truth, even though Rafique and Anasuya have been married for five years and are about to start a family.
Seen through Arjun’s eyes—especially from his vantage point of a successful, urbane individual protected from the ugliness of communalism—the situation in Noma appears unfathomable. Few are concerned about the disappearance of a man from their midst and it is not until Arjun begins to read Rafique’s diary (which Anasuya saves from police raids by hiding it in the toilet flush tank) that the miasma begins to recede bit by bit.
True to Pandey’s opening gambit, it is our collective misfortune as readers that Rafique and Anasuya’s plight, allegedly described in a work of fiction, strikes too close to home in the India that we live now. Recently, Annie Zaidi had captured a similar aura of menace in her novel Prelude To A Riot, though there is a long and hallowed tradition of storytelling—going back to Bhisham Sahni’s Partition novel Tamas (1974)—where fiction is the more potent truth-teller than non-fiction, especially in a society where free speech is inhibited and reality is distorted by fake news and misinformation.
In the 1940s, a whiff of gossip and hearsay was enough to stoke the fires of communal hatred; half a century later, we have moved on to faster and more efficient vehicles of transmission. But the victim, then as now, remains unchanged: our collective humanity.
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