We are not done with walls yet. The breaking of the last great wall in modern history, the Berliner Mauer in 1989, has not dismantled this absurd human longing for walls. The outgoing US president spent his entire term in office promising a wall that would protect Americans from marauding Mexicans. Did Donald Trump's determination to build a wall—a real, physical wall—come from a too-literal reading of the wall of ice in Game of Thrones, the most potent pop culture reference point of the past decade? We may never know, but putting up walls seems to be the default reaction of a certain kind of mind.
A wall is at once a divider and a protector, and it is easy to convince people that it keeps them safe. It is this idea that the people who govern the city-state of Sumer in Gautam Bhatia’s debut speculative fiction, The Wall, sell citizens. Sumer is obsessed with order and organisation—not only is the perfectly circular city’s boundaries marked by an immense, impregnable wall, even within, the city is divided into concentric rings of power and privilege, each ring earmarked for people of different occupations— everything in its place and a place for everything. Has there ever been an idea more terrifying?
Naturally, in this city of strict divisions, there are a few who long to be truly free, who want to uncover all the secrets the city is hiding and see what lies beyond. There are poets who sing of a time before the wall, and there is a collective longing—with a beautiful word for it, ‘smara’—for that time, which most citizens have managed to suppress. But not everyone has forgotten to remember. A group of young people, led by the insatiably curious Mithila, the primary protagonist, thinks, plans and dreams about breaching the wall. Mithila’s longing for the world beyond is palpable; and the world-building here is so detailed that it manages to make us feel a semblance of the same desperation.
Yet, even as the reader feels claustrophobic at the idea of living in such a circumscribed world, Bhatia’s layered writing makes the idea of safety dangerously seductive at times. This world is dystopic, but it is a subtler form of dystopia than 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale—the people of Sumer are largely okay, though they have let some freedoms go in exchange for security and a measure of prosperity. Don’t we all know a few good people who wilfully participate in the segregation of other humans “for their own good”, who don’t question absurd and draconian new laws because “some pain is necessary for society”, who believe questioning authority is heresy? You could say that Sumer, like our world today, is in a state of pre-dystopia.
Politics feeds most good speculative fiction, sometimes elliptically, sometimes in a very front-and-centre way, be it the sweeping space saga of James SA Corey’s The Expanse, the machinations of the Teixcalaanli Empire in Arkady Martin’s A Memory Called Empire, almost all of Ursula K Le Guin’s writing, and even young-adult work like the Hunger Games series. But all speculative fiction also has to work as a story—you have to care about what happens to the protagonists, you have to feel their joy and pain and despair. The Wall is so full of ideas and there is so much for a reader, especially an Indian reader, to unpack and draw parallels to, that it veers close to becoming almost academic at times, though always pulling back to suck the reader into the story with romance, song and poetry.
The book forces one to think of the many kinds of walls we live with. I found myself thinking of a very different kind of speculative fiction novel: China Mieville’s The City & The City, in which the wall is imaginary, separating the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, where citizens of each city simultaneously occupy the same physical space but are not allowed to interact with each other or even acknowledge the others’ presence. It is the most troubling portrayal I have come across of the wilful schisms we create between ourselves, and a metaphor for the sometimes bizarre ways in which human beings adhere to boundaries. What fearful thing lies beyond the wall in this book? Probably nothing, and everything.