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The Solitude of Emperors, by David Davidar

This wonderful novel explores personal stories behind religious fundamentalism in India. A young man, Vijay, brought up in South India, comes to Bombay to be a journalist in a little known magazine. The magazine’s editor, portrayed as a staunch believer in secularism and a deep thinker, heavily influences him. Vijay ends up getting involved in the riots in Bombay soon after the Babri Masjid incident.

To recover from his trauma, the editor sends Vijay back to South India to a town in the Nilgiri mountains. In many ways the retreat is a paradise, yet what awaits there is a reflection of what he has just been through – potential sectarian violence and fundamentalist rhetoric being propagated to achieve political ends. Being who he is, and spurred on by a short piece which he’s reviewing for his editor, Vijay cannot help but get involved and the story recounts the tale of his findings and efforts and their ultimate consequences.

One highlight is the piece which the protagonist is reviewing for his editor – which happens to be titled “The solitude of emperors” – and is about how three great men of India – Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi – brought massive change in the country. This work, recounted piecewise during the novel briefly describes the beliefs and actions of each of these men, and ends with a wonderfully inspiring call to imbibe and contribute to the greatness of India.

Inhale the genius of this country. Do not discount anything, the transcendent poetry of the Sufi and Bhakti poets, the architecture of Hampi and Fatehpur Sikri and Mount Abu, the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and the Shirdi Sai Baba. Let the plaintive wail of the shehnai fill your senses, the plangent notes of the sarod and the sitar slice through the dullness of your waking life…

…do not neglect to absorb the poverty and violence and savagery of this country of extremes. Experience the despair of the coal miner in Dhanbad, where the very land is on fire, understand the hopelessness of the marginal cotton farmer in Andhra Pradesh, mourn with the widow of the Sikh garage owner who witnessed her husband being burnt alive in the Delhi riots of 1984. Let their pain become yours.

The other highlight is the characters in the book who represent a spectrum of actors in the play of sectarian violence in India and their personal stories. The idealistic and far-thinking editor who realized late in life that the nation needs every bit of help fighting off fundamentalists. The suave politician who can cleverly, even reasonably, argue for the need of religious glory in a country like India. The charismatic misfit and loner who has seen the world and seems to have given up fighting for it. And of course the protagonist who starts off apathetic, but is shaped by circumstances to care about something greater than himself.

A gripping tale, and yet more than a tale because it touches reality so deeply, and leaves the reader with a lot to think about.