In recent years, it seems that every major publishing house in the West has "discovered" the near East in terms of authors. While the braver might be tempted to publish the occasional Arab or Muslim voice, the real flavour of the hour has become Indian authors. It would be a disservice to these fine men and women to call them tokens, as the majority of them are fine authors deserving of the recognition they receive, so I hope that no one thinks that's what I'm implying.
But there is a troubling pattern emerging concerning the themes of the books that are being published for Western consumption. Almost without fail, stories revolve around the sectarian violence in the streets of the big cities. In some the religious hatred between Muslim and Hindu may only be the backdrop against which the characters play out their lives, but even that only serves to reinforce the picture of a society on the verge of a civil war along the lines of the tribal violence in Rwanda and Bosnia.
Prior to this most people, when asked about India, would have thought about poverty, probably known who Gandhi was, and maybe said something about sacred cows. In the sixties, there was minor interest among the drug-addled in various forms of meditation as they looked for other ways to alter their senses of perception. This served to perpetuate the old mysterious East stereotype and made every Indian a guru.
How many books published in North America, or the English-speaking world beyond the borders of the Indian sub-continent, by Indian authors can you name that have dealt with topics unrelated to Indian's version of the "troubles"? How many have even brought it to our attention that India is one of the oldest living civilizations in the whole world? How many of these "Indian" novels mention that India has a tradition of epic literature that is as old if not older then Homer?
At first glance David Davidar's newest book The Solitude Of Emperors, published by McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Random House Canada, has all the appearances of being cut from the same cloth as other recently published books. While there is no denying that Hindu nationalism does feature prominently, there are elements about this book that distinguish it from the pack.
Vijay is a young man bored with life in his small provincial town in rural India. Quite by chance, the opportunity presents itself for him to escape when he's offered a job with a magazine dedicated to advocating plurality in India. It's when he moves to Mumbai (Bombay) to begin the job that he receives his own bitter lesson about the violence that plagues India. He is assaulted by Hindu thugs during the riots of 1992. It hadn't mattered that he was Hindu; they were exacting revenge on anyone or anything that was better off or different than they were.
After he recovers his employer figures it might be good for him to take a vacation away from the city and sends him to find out about the threat to a Christian shrine from Hindu fundamentalists in a small town. He also asks him if he would do him the favour of reading over a short manuscript that he has written about three figures in Indian history whose ideas and stories he wants people to remember.
Vijay's emplyoyer believes that the only chance India has is for another person like one of these historical figures to come along and set the example for the rest of the country to follow. His hope is that by describing these individuals' characteristics it will enable people to be able to recognize the next great "Emperor" who comes along to lead the people away from the path of mutual destruction.
It's from this manuscript that the title Solitude Of Emperors comes from. It is Rustom Sorabjee's (Vijay's boss) belief that Emperors are able to sit in solitude and face up to his or her own demons and learn about themselves sufficiently to develop a true path. He cites as his example three men of legendary status from the annals of India history who have all dedicated themselves to preserving her plurality.
Samraat Ashoka was known as the Emperor of Renunciation for giving up the ways of the sword and dedicating himself to the well being of his people and ruled circa 300BC. Shahenshah Akbar (1542-1605 AD) was known as the Emperor of Faith because although he was a Muslim, he encouraged people of all faiths to settle in India. He was famous for trying to create one faith for India comprising elements of all the religions. The final emperor was the Mahatma, Gandhi, who never ruled India, but was one of the catalysts behind Independence and dreamed of a pluralist nation
Although Vijay had gone to report on the situation dealing with the Christian shrine, it soon becomes for him a symbol of the fight against fundamentalism. With the assistance of a local eccentric, Noah, he tries to rally support against the planned occupation of the shrine by Hindu extremists. Unfortunately, the same apathy that grips most of India around doing anything about preventing violence is prevalent here and he can't rouse anyone into believing that anything serious will happen.
Vijay is no Emperor and in spite of all his efforts ends up only able to record the events of the attempted occupation and not be an active participant in its defence. In fact, like so many others of his generation, he flees the country for Canada to escape. Partly he is looking to escape himself, and partly the violence of his country. In the end, he realizes he can't escape either one.
Mr. Davidar has created a situation and characters that bring a different perspective to the violence that periodically surfaces in India. He does not shy away from the reality of the situation, and in fact manages to make it far more realistic than the majority of authors. His depiction of the leader of the fundamentalist Hindu group as a pillar of society whose arguments in support of his extremist views are ever so reasonable, make him far scarier than the usual wild-eyed fanatic that we find in the pages of a novel.
At heart The Solitude of Emperors is still a novel about the religious conflicts that plague the India, but unlike some of its contemporaries, readers learn that there is more to her than that. Until recent times India was a pluralistic society, the envy of any so-called modern civilization, and that dream is still cherished by a great many people. That's a view we don't often hear expressed, and one we can all look to as inspiration.
I think the world could do with a few more people like Samraat Ashoka, Shahenshah Akbar, and Mahatma Gandhi. Don't you?