Sometime in the middle of 1978. Old city of Hyderabad burned with Hindus and Muslims killing each other, and the police killing everyone.
Early May 2003. “Characters should behave unaware of the future that lay ahead of them, and it is in this mystery that life wades forward.” I wrote down something along these lines in my notes after copying it from Gary Saul Morson’s “Narrative and Freedom” book. These were my early notes. I needed to write my book. I had no choice. I felt I will have no future if I didn’t write it.
October 2009. Browsing on the net, I discovered “Rahasya Vaana” poem by Kalpana Rentala on her blog. With a naive boldness that comes only from remembering amateurish skills of younger years, I decided my Telugu is good enough to translate her poem into English. A day or two later, found out one Afsar and his poem “Kondaru Snehitulu…Nanna…Oka Artharaatri.” Soon I learned they are of one family. A month or two later all three of us are talking about starting a Telugu publishing company.
November 2010. Saaranga Books. “Aneka.” Months of toil by Kalpana and Afsar. Still more months of near-anal persistence by me for a certain look and feel for the book.
September 2014. “All Things Unforgiven,” the final shape taken by those early May 2003 words. Yes, we all did behave unaware of what the future lay ahead of us. And so when Lev Grossman, the New York Times’ best-selling author of “The Magicians” trilogy, led us—I and four other debut novelists—onto the stage at Brooklyn Book Festival in Brooklyn, New York, this Sunday, Sept 21 2014, for a brief moment these past eleven odd years replayed in my head and I smiled inwardly.
I am not at all glorifying this moment. I believe publishers like Saaranga and writers who publish books are everywhere, and there’s nothing special about them. Still, I am writing this note now because in the book “All Things Unforgiven,” a school-boy named Arya walks back from school to his house in old city on the day of the 1978 Hindu-Muslim communal riots. And that boy came alive in the book extract I read onstage after Grossman introduced me to the audience. This was the extract I read to the audience.
As Arya approached the intersection, which was already crowded with people, he saw, coming out from the narrow lane on the left, a stream of bicycles, rickshaws and auto-rickshaws; evidently all the traffic had been diverted from Charminar.
Across the street, on his right and ahead of him, stood a small mosque and near its entrance stood a group of four or five men, all with their white prayer caps on them. It appeared as though they had just finished their prayer and were standing at the junction talking among themselves.
Arya then saw children, mostly girls, playing in front of the shops, jumping up and down a raised platform. A sudden feeling of nearness towards the children rose in his heart. “Don’t you know it is dangerous to let the children out here, into the open like this, at such times?” he was about to ask someone, but instead something else attracted his attention.
In the adjacent meat shop, through the gap between two large pieces of meat that were hanging by metal hooks, he saw a swinging movement of the shop owner’s arm. With a large black meat cleaver in one hand he cut the meat in rhythmic movements as he deftly moved the pieces sideways and around with his other hand, at the same time saying something to the man by the side of the shop. Next to the man there were three or four older men, also with white prayer caps on them, sitting in plastic chairs, talking something.
Arya was transfixed by these views. “Look how they go in and out of the streets, sit on the chairs and stare at the people, as though out here on the street is their living room, while I am afraid,” he thought. He kept looking at one side and the other, mesmerized by the boldness, by the indifference, and by the fearlessness in all that he saw around him. Once again, the same intense feeling of kinship with everything in these streets rose in the boy’s heart.
He crossed the junction, and going through the traffic that kept on coming from the narrow lane on his left, he turned his head over his shoulder, to see who else was going in his direction.
From the group that was standing in front of the mosque, one of the men stared fixedly at Arya for a few moments, and without taking his eyes off him, spat to his side.
Suddenly Arya became conscious of several eyes staring at him, and an awkward feeling of embarrassment rose in him. He wished to run away, to go near someone or something that was familiar. Still fixing his eyes on Arya, the man removed his cap and, now appearing more menacing, pushed his shirtsleeves up, and spoke to the others, without turning to them.
“He is looking at me thinking if I am a Muslim or a Hindu,” thought Arya, now feeling apprehensive at his circumstance, forgetting his earlier pleasant feeling. “They are talking among themselves, planning to come after me from both sides.”
At once all the faces on the street appeared the same to him, with the same menacing, calculating, fixated look on him, with the full knowledge of how to cordon him off, and how to frighten him. He looked away from them, and shifting his school bag from one shoulder to another, increased his pace. But the heavy bag kept swaying and kept hitting his thigh with a thud, and when the sound of the tiffin box lid breaking open came from within, he slowed down, perspiring and excited with a feeling of terror and shame. The consciousness that his fear had a terrible hold on him disappeared, and in that place now he felt the whole fear itself. The boy could not be sure if the ground was giving away beneath him or whether something unpleasant had begun to churn in his stomach. He slowed down further, and with a defiant expression on his face, through the spectacles that were becoming all misty and kept slipping down his nose, he looked back.
Contrary to his expectations and fears, he saw nothing that moved toward him. There were no crowds that were violent to be seen. He felt flushed. Becoming aware of the pulsations of blood flowing rapidly into his ears, making them swollen, itchy and tingling, he continued along that road, and was seen turning the corner onto the street that brought him nearer home.
And these are the pictures. And yes, I still believe one should write as though the characters should be unaware of the future ahead of them. That’s the only way to be truthful to the moment we are in.Aleksandra Pickering This article was originally published in Saaranga Magazine.