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Book Review: The Fate of Butterflies, Nayantara Sahgal

We get postcards from the brink of political apocalypse.

This debate that recurs intermittently — literature for literature’s sake or does one capitulate to the fact that literature, like all art, is situated within varied social superstructures that it may never be free of. Does an agenda, especially a political one, derail the literary destiny of a book? May a book have a powerful political purpose and yet fail as literature? Is propaganda ‘literature’ and, if not, what differentiates the two?

These questions storm the reader of The Fate of Butterflies by Nayantara Sahgal. By spearheading what is derogatorily termed the ‘award wapsi brigade’, Sahgal has made no bones of her politics. Attempts have been made to stymie her public appearances as recently as the All India Marathi Literary Meet on January 11, 2019 where her invite was rescinded under political pressure. And yet, nowhere has her bold anti-right wing stance been held back by her feisty spirit. Not only is she indefatigable at 92, she is an icon of the fearlessness that democracy enshrines. This is a book no one else could have written.

This novella is difficult to read, dark and dystopic.

It isn’t meant to be fiction as much as an alarm bell — its world starkly sordid, its violence senseless and overarching.

In a way, the book is a rapid montage of the worst of newspaper reports and thinly disguises them against the framework of a set of loosely entwined friends. Brevity aids in hammering home the immediacy of this violence for it fills the text cover to cover.

Prabhu Prabhakar is an orphan, son of bricklayers, upon whose death by accident at their construction site his poor grandma leaves him in the care of Christian nuns. He goes on to establish himself as a professor of repute, furthered by his new book that is often referred to but inadequately described. This is also Katerina’s story, who Prabhakar finds himself obsessing over as she recovers from her memories of a gruesome gang rape while in a village on her mission of social work.

There is Sergei, an arms dealer of Russian descent who begins and ends the narrative but seems the most extraneous, almost a misfit in this scenario. His nationality may have served to underscore the spreading multiculturalism of a democracy or that the world is watching yet ends up seeming merely alien and far removed from our Indian realities.

Francois and Prahlad are gay partners who run a beautiful café, Bonjour. And then there is the diligent Lisette who is reviewing as yet undiscovered restaurants for Michelin. In all, this is a glittering set whose fairly exotic backgrounds, parties and excesses are blithely at odds with the unrelenting obsession with social justice they seem to champion.

The worst that may happen does. Prabhakar almost drives over the body of a lynched Muslim man who, unfortunately, drops out of the text entirely. Besides, he is repeatedly invited by the political mastermind Mirajkar to soirees where a resurgent global right wing converges to discuss their methodology.

Their favourite hole-in-the-corner dhaba with exquisite Mughal food is now a café aka kaif, and prefers to serve burgers and keep mutton off the menu. Café Bonjour is ransacked and Prahlad is beaten such that he may never dance again.

While atrocities are quite powerfully outlined, there is no attempt to trace the genesis or the philosophy of the right wing in India today. Painting those we don’t agree with all black is rather ostrich. In reality, the right wing, to a great extent, represents crores of those disenchanted by generations of ruling classes who have used their power and influence to amass wealth while impoverishing the citizenry. Today’s right wing is in reality a repercussion of the poor governance of our past, if not a direct consequence of the failure of our systems of education.

The premise of the book appears somewhat sketchy against the backdrop of the personages from history referred to: Cecil Rhodes, Alfred Nobel, Dwight Eisenhower and Mahatma Gandhi. All of them belong to the fogs of political antiquity and unless the discourse includes recent history or current events, it ends up dated, incomplete and almost whimsical.

Make no mistake; this is a powerhouse of a book. This political dynamo of a book delineates exactly what we were and what we stand to lose. This is a book to buy, treasure and be disturbed by.

The most enjoyable portions of the book are descriptions of food providing a powerful cultural counterpoint to the macabre: a comprehensive menu of Southern delicacies at the US ambassador’s dinner, at the kaif cooked by the brilliant Rafeeq, or at Bonjour. If only the Mughlai delicacies were gone into in greater detail rather than skimmed over with oblique references to their spice content.

Make no mistake; this is a powerhouse of a book. This political dynamo of a book delineates exactly what we were and what we stand to lose. This is a book to buy, treasure and be disturbed by.

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