Sep 11, 2007
The Solitude of Emperors by David Davidar - review
The Solitude of Emperors
by David Davidar
McClelland & Stewart, 288 pages, $32.99
“It was in December 1992 that Bombay lost its way.”
In 1992, Hindu nationalists destroyed a mosque in the town of Ahodhya, India. Muslim retaliation was to be expected, and the resulting sectarian violence led to one of the bloodiest and most shameful incidents in India’s long history.
David Davidar, president of Penguin Canada and author of The Solitude of Emperors, presents the riots with unflinching directness. As his protagonist Vijay watches people being torn apart in the street, “internal organs visible as if in a urology lab demonstration,” the nature of mob violence attains a gruesome intimacy.
It is not violence, however, that drives Davidar’s plot, but the lust for power in those who would feign religious righteousness as a masquerade for their dreams of glory. And in a world that sees the increasing reliance on fundamentalist dogma rather than logic to guide those in power, the themes of The Solitude of Emperors are all too familiar.
Vijay is an aspiring journalist with the Bombay-based newspaper The Indian Secularist. After a close brush with death during the riots, he is sent to the tea town of Meham to relax, but discovers instead that the religious tensions of the big cities are slowly making inroads into rural India as well.
While Solitude is ostensibly Vijay’s story, Davidar interweaves his tale with the words of an unpublished treatise on past leaders of India, written by Vijay’s mentor Mr Sorabjee. In this fashion, Davidar manages the not-inconsiderable feat of seamlessly couching a diatribe on India’s “compact with the Gods” within a personal drama of sizeable power.
Attempting to encapsulate the timeless lessons of Ashoka, Akbar, and Gandhi, while tying them to the state of the country in the 1990s, Mr Sorabjee hopes that his text will serve as a call to arms for young Indians. While admitting that poverty and poor educational resources are rampant throughout the nation, “our surfeit of Gods, one for every three or four of us, more than makes up for any lack of doctors, policemen, school teachers, nuclear scientists, and judges.”
Sadly, while India may very well be the most religiously diverse country on Earth, Mr Sorabjee worries its reputation as a nation of tolerance is rapidly being eroded by “small-minded men who will use [religion] to advance their own petty ends.” Vijay’s adventures do nothing to dispel this belief, and as the plot steadily advances toward an almost-foregone conclusion, the hideous inevitability of conflict creates almost unbearable tension.
While there is undeniable bleakness in Davidar’s words, it would be a disfavor to label The Solitude of Emperors as disheartening. As Mr Sorabjee ends his essay with words of hope, asking the young to “fight in whatever way you can to restore sanity and decency to our nation,” so too does Davidar, arguing that the solutions to such religious dilemmas are far more complicated than the overt easiness of blind fundamentalism would have us believe.
Starting a war is a straightforward affair; ending a war requires compassion, thought, and reason. The Solitude of Emperors never offers any answer but this one certainty, and in reminding us of it, Davidar may be gearing us up for what lies ahead.
Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press, September 9, 2007.