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Book Review: The Fate of Butterflies, by Nayantara Sahgal

  • Nayantara Sahgal, in her early 90s, remains a robust voice speaking against injustice
  • Her new novel holds up a mirror to the upheavals contemporary India is going through 

(Photo: Priyanka Parashar/ Mint)

In her 92nd year, Nayantara Sahgal remains precise, affecting, and politically robust as a writer, qualities that are amply evident in her new novella, The Fate Of Butterflies. Like her previous work of fiction, When The Moon Shines By Day (2017), the story here follows the fate of a close group of characters, living through a time not unlike ours, in an India marked by sectarian, gender-oriented and caste-based violence. The brevity of the book doesn’t allow room for many layers to the plot. But Sahgal is deft with conjuring situations that convey the “mood" of the moment, a sudden insight into a person, or a chilling premonition into the future.

Prabhakar, a scholar, captures the attention of right-leaning thinkers and politicians for a fantastical treatise he has written, advocating a fresh start for the nation, stepping out of the long shadow of figures like M.K. Gandhi. In spite of his hesitation at being co-opted into an ideology he doesn’t subscribe to, Prabhakar attends a tea party hosted by the “Master Mind", a political theorist close to the dispensation in power at the centre. Ensconced in the prissy elegance of the drawing room, sipping beverages and nibbling on dainty snacks, Prabhakar, who was born to poor bricklayers and brought up by the missionaries, is privy to a gathering (of mostly men) from European nations celebrating the rise of the right in the continent.

Sahgal segues Prabhakar’s predicament—not unlike that of the scientist, Frankenstein, who unwittingly unleashed a monster on the world—with the stories of a gay couple, Prahlad and Francois, owners of a boutique hotel; Katerina, a social worker, who is gang-raped during a visit to a village aflame with communal tension; and Sergei, an arms dealer who has business in India. As this unlikely bunch navigates its way through a fast-changing India, their lives are riven by the “Cow Commission", out to exterminate beef-eaters, and “intellectuals" rewriting history to suit the self-serving agenda of the regime. Again, due to the concision of the narrative, some of these tropes may feel inadequately imagined, but the overwhelming spirit of the book remains poised on a cusp, where the hope for a better future, the desire to dance into the night, isn’t crushed entirely by the miserable depths to which humanity has sunk.

The Fate Of Butterflies: By Nayantara Sahgal, Speaking Tiger, 152 pages, 450

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