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A nation on the cusp of innocence and experience

THE PEACOCK THRONE By Sujit Saraf
Sceptre,
£11.99

Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter.../ And the dry stone no sound of water...

— T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

The light that blinds

Gopal Pandey stands among the debris in Kucha Bansilal, staring at the space that once housed his tea stall. Unkempt — in a dirty dhoti, a shirt with buttons missing and badly scratched spectacles — he is a weary old man with a bald pate, wearing a confused, bewildered look on his face. The demolition drive of the mid-Nineties in Delhi has not spared his stall, despite the certificate given by the local MLA. The peepul tree round the corner, beside the Hanuman temple, has also been cut down, its trunk destroying the temple as it fell…

Gopal is the face of Sujit Saraf’s The Peacock Throne, and the setting is Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, the epicentre of some of the seminal events that shaped India’s recent history. From the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, to the uproar over V.P. Singh’s OBC quotas, this stretch between the Red Fort and the Fatehpuri Masjid has seen it all. And caught up in the tides of these epic moments, Gopal, the ‘unheroic’ chaivala, is always acted upon. He is a passive spectator, unwillingly, and most often unknowingly, embroiled in the most sordid of controversies. Yet, with his awkward and unsure demeanour, he sets the tone of the novel and becomes its focal point.

Gopal is also the face of modern India — powerless, gullible, almost like a pawn being moved around on the chessboard of India’s evolving fate. This fate — this metamorphosis from innocence to experience — is as much a journey for Gopal as for the Nation-state. Gopal rises from the status of a humble chaivala to that of an aspiring MP. The country too, trades its idealistic, Nehruvian socialism for a more grim future through the churning of the anti-Sikh riots, the Mandal Commission debate and the Babri Masjid crisis.

The novel tracks this change in five parts — each recounting a milestone year from 1984 to 1998. It begins on the day Indira Gandhi is killed by her personal guards. Saraf vividly portrays how different people react to this national crisis. “Why did she have to die today' Chitra asks herself in exasperation....why must she die on the very day that Chitra stands on the cusp of a new dawn'” Chitra Ghosh, a young woman fresh out of academics, has just started a school for homeless and destitute children called Sparrows, and it is the day of the inauguration. Her misplaced idealism soon fades away in the more practical pursuits of her own ambition.

For Gauhar Muhammad, the little refugee boy from Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi is as alien as the new, hostile country. His hunger, and the fear of losing the last piece of paratha stolen from Paratha Gali, make him believe that the jeepfuls of police at every street corner have been deployed for the sole purpose of snatching away his food. Sohan Lal, the bania seth, opposite whose sari shop Gopal’s tea stall is located, has the typical fear of the affluent trader losing his money, anticipating the fall of the rupee as the immediate repercussion of Indira’s death.

On that fateful day, Gopal finds himself sheltering a sardar fleeing from mob fury. He also chances upon a huge amount of money left in the stall by the sardar. Incidentally, the money belongs to Sohan Lal. Thus, the seth, the sardar and the chaivala get their lives hopelessly intertwined and are unable to disentangle the knots until the final part of the novel. Gopal’s estranged son, Mukesh, is politically inclined. During the 1984 riots, he is hired by a political party to finish off every sardar on a Faridabad-bound train. The first part of the novel ends with Mukesh dousing the injured sardars in petrol — including Kartar Singh, whom his father had saved — and then leaving in haste without striking the match. In the second part (1990), the very same Mukesh is seen before a street full of student protestors, inebriated, doused in petrol and in flames. He was told by Kartar Singh, now a nominated councillor, to put up the act, with promises that someone will put out the flames before it is too late. With Mukesh’s death, ironically, the first and the second parts are bound in a causal connection: Kartar Singh, unknowingly, has had his revenge by finishing what Mukesh had left unfinished that night. One would have called it divine retribution if the results were not so sinister.

Saraf visualizes India going through a constant trial by fire, only to discover that the nation’s conscience is too flawed for redemption. Yet, while the nation reeks of deceit and treachery, cutting across religion, social and caste hierarchies, while those in power keep sapping the life-blood out of the pliant masses, Gopal strikes us as someone almost sage-like in his abandon, unsoiled by all the mire, in spite of being knee-deep in it.

The image of the peacock throne runs in threads through the book, symbolizing the lure of ambition that kills, like a serpent, ensnaring prince and pauper alike, till they decay in life and death. Yet, Gopal stays well above all the trappings of ambition by the sheer virtue of his simplicity. Even the author, persistently wrecking havoc in his life, fails to unsettle Gopal’s peculiar poise. He is on the brink of immense power thrust on him but is not disheartened when it is finally snatched away. From the beginning to end, personal tragedy and political clout change every other person except Gopal, who signifies the final triumph of the common man.

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