A new book from an acclaimed author with an illustrious political lineage is much anticipated and Nayantara Sehgal doesn’t disappoint. Laced with irony, the title of her new book, When the Moon Shines by Day, is an indication enough which way this dystopian satire is headed; and as expected, a degree of discomfort is likely to linger long after the book is done with.
The novel begins innocuously enough when four women in their late 40s — Rehana, Lily, Nandini and Aruna — settle down to read a novel by a Japanese author in their snug little book club. The novel, set in the 1930s, unspools noiselessly in a gracious English manor although the clouds of fascism loom large over the horizon. Rehana, fascinated by the 1930s, is reminded of the two infamous dictators pounding Spain to test their weapons for war-worthiness.
Author Kamlesh meets acclaimed writer Franz Rohner who, accompanied by his wife Gerda, is in India to launch his new book. The discussion between the two erudite men of words swerve towards literature and politics, Franz’s comments over cocktails are as illuminating as they are disturbing. “Religion joined to nation is a marriage made in hell” he states emphatically. Nikhil, another friend of Rehana’s, is an artist with political convictions whose paintings reverberate with the anguish of the oppressed and the damned.
Rehana, the daughter of a famous historian, reads excerpts from the diary of her mother written in jail and is struck by the spirit of solidarity shared by freedom fighters, when in prison. Lonely, aimless and adrift after Vineet’s passing away, despairing over her father’s books on medieval history systematically disappearing from the racks, Rehana passionately pitches into the activities of the Asians Against Torture, a decision that lends shape, direction and purpose to her days. She is invited to view Nikhil’s paintings by art connoisseur and gallerist Cyrus Batlivala and on her visit to the art gallery, the exhibition is bombarded. Injured and bleeding, Rehana, so far a crusader against violence, gets a firsthand experience of mob fury even as many of the precious paintings are vandalised. The fact that a price has to be paid for taking a political stand is driven home forcefully and Rehana wakes up to the astonishing fact that terror, most often, comes clothed in homely attire.
Abdul, Rehana’s domestic help, has taken to calling himself Morari Lal for obvious reasons even as members of a certain community are being herded into cramped tenements. “…a safety measure for their own good…” explains the Director of Cultural Transfo-rmation genially. There is a tangible feeling of imminent disaster and rightly enough an entire housing colony goes up in flames. Later, bodies are found bearing traces of torture and unimaginable brutalisation. Rehana’s frequent meetings with the Director of Cultural Transformation in connection with the atrocities committed on citizens are met by a bland wall of chilling (but affable) indifference. Cardamom tea is served overlooking lush lawns, champagne flows at cocktails parties to the accompaniment of intellectual conversation and all the while the shanty town, inhabited by a certain community, burns and people lose lives in acts of carnage.
Into this scenario wafts in Zamir and a chance encounter with this edgy writer gives a new dimension to Rehana’s life. Zamir, whose books were torched in a ‘book-burning fiesta’ by certain elements, has been asked to vacate his residence by the landlord and fellow residents and is now compelled to live very far off. Meanwhile, all art and literature henceforth, is expected to be sanitised, healthy and wholesome and to avoid the risk of extermination, all thinking is to be homogenised.
There are refreshing (though few) moments of mirth in this bleak futuristic landscape as Nandini chooses a book on the Taj Mahal for reading and Kamlesh is invited as the guest speaker. There is astonishment over an edifice celebrating “married” love and a great deal of irreverence over Shah Jahan’s amorous escapades as chronicled by an agent of the East India Company, Peter Mundy. Franz returns from his trip to the south but his predictions are gloomy. ‘All revolutions are destined to tread the same path’, he theorises while right down Rehana’s lane, a young man is brutally killed for carrying a leather suitcase (donated by Rehana). Rehana, Franz and Zamir are all set to attend the gala opening of culture week, an event of great pomp and grandeur presided over by the Director of Cultural Transformation, and when Dalit defiance unexpectedly explodes on the scene, the reader is tempted to stand up and cheer. The prose is disarmingly (and deceptively) simple. Names are mostly monosyllabic, relationships ambiguous and character sketches left deliberately undefined. Thus we know very little of Rehana saving her commitment to her pet cause (of tackling institutionalised torture) and the fact that she moves in an elite circle. Likewise, Zamir, Nikhil, Kamlesh, Aruna and others are nebulous victims/ catalysts who waft through the novel, giving momentum to the course of events but rarely creating a ripple with their personalities. Rehana, the protagonist, is a semi-mute spectator to a rapidly (and rabidly!) changing world. In this crumbling tumultuous scenario, Franz Rohner, the soft-spoken political writer, with a long vision of the future, stands the most articulate of them all- commentator, analyst and an astute predictor of the future. In the happenings of the penultimate section, however, his predictions turn turtle. There are frequent lapses into delightful colloquialism, “No onion, no garlic, then how meat?” wonders Abdul. With dizzying swinging from the global to the local and from past histories to present ones — the Hitler-Mussolini arsenal, the Taj Mahal, gourmet cuisine and cow vigilantism — the disconcerting join-the-dots chaos in the initial section of the book could baffle the reader; what trajectory was the novel whizzing along? Midway through, however, the past and the present collide to give a pretty lucid, alarming and plausible vision of the future.
The author, with a kind of morbid compulsion, dwells repeatedly on the vital interval between blow and death, analysing and dissecting the excruciating moments of physical pain that is the purpose of all torture. Playing upon the fault lines between the perceptions of the destroyer and the damned, it is the mathematics and intricacies of bodily torture that obsesses the protagonist the most. There is discernible anguish over the threat to freedom evident in recent times and comparing the situation to the Fuhrer’s ideology of creating a racially pure breed, a deep concern over the possibility of a similar movement closer home. Holding a mirror to the present, the fictitious country spun by her, Nayantara Sahgal warning the reader obliquely, may not be too far off. A vital, timely, thought-provoking and deeply relevant work of writing, the novel is definitely not recommended for the squeamish.