Nayantara Sahgal’s new work of fiction leads readers into a frightening world that makes us wonder about the one we live in.
Nayantara Sahgal is a Sahitya Akademi award winning novelist who has spent her life writing about the making of modern India. But The Fate of Butterflies, published this year, is unlike any other in her long career of writing.
This is the book that was described by Gopalkrishna Gandhi as the kind of book that “should not have been written, but had to be written”. This is the book that defies the earlier career of a successful author, for it is a book no longer about the making of modern India, but about the unmaking of the largest democracy in the world.
In 2015, Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi award as a protest against the ideology of the government. In order to continue exercising her right to freedom of speech, she has now written the nightmarish The Fate of Butterflies, which unambiguously likens the fictional situation to Hitler’s Germany. Here Muslims are herded into camps, their corpses strewn across the road, completely naked but for the skull cap, a massive gang-rape policy targets Muslim woman, and all meat is banned until it is proven not to be beef.
An inadvertent manifesto
Prabhakar, a political science professor, writes a satire that is read as the future of India by the “Mastermind” who is the prime political thinker of the nation, known to defy rules and do things his own way. Prabhakar is accepted into a bizarre society of European fascists and NRI Hindu supremacists congratulating him on his achievement. However, Prabhakar himself was born in a lower-caste community of construction workers who have no job safety and are treated inhumanely. He is in love with a woman who was gang-raped by Hindu thugs. And he is friendly with a gay couple who run a breakfast retreat called Bonjour.
For Sahgal, this book is both intimately personal and a cry for a larger political change. In the speech she would have delivered at the All India Marathi Meet in January before her invitation was canceled under political pressure, she wrote:
“My parents were among many thousands of Indians – known and unknown, young and old – who committed their lives to that great fight and suffered all kinds of hardship because they had a passion for freedom. I want to ask you, do we have that same passion for freedom today? Are we worthy of those men and women who have gone before us, some of whom died fighting so that future Indians could live in freedom?”
Sahgal doesn’t want silence. She wants her dissent to ring and echo in our ears. But instead of screaming, she writes in a calm, low register. Reading this novel is like entering a noisy room and concentrating on that one soft-spoken person, perking up your ears to really listen. With literary minimalism, Sahgal writes a thunderous book, the kind everyone needs to read, especially with the elections underway. The book isn’t just relevant to Indian readers who have been stripped of their rights and feel silenced, but to the entire world, which is being overtaken by extreme right-wing forces.
The wealth is in the details
Halfway through the novel, Prabhakar looks through a bunch of newspaper clippings about a trial. A foreign woman comes to a Muslim-populated village (later revealed as his love-interest) to examine the massacre forced upon women. She recalls how a mob came to get her in broad daylight:
“The clipping said she spoke in an expressionless monotone. The thought of it gripped Prabhakar, as it had the first time he had read the account. It conjured a cultivated deadness and eyes glazed with unsheddable tears. Had she dulled her voice to mesmerize herself into a somnolent state so that she could speak the unspeakable? She was told to speak up. Her voice rose and said, ‘I said they beat our legs with rods and forced us to the ground...’ The judge ordered silence or he would have the court cleared. He would have ordered a separate room for her testimony but she refused and said it must be heard and continued: ‘They pulled our clothes off. More men came. They dragged us to make room and kicked our legs apart. Each one of us was surrounded and held down...’”
In a way, this is the role Sahgal is playing as the author too. A controlled voice, refusing to let herself be silenced, providing only sparse details like a glance in the direction of dismembered bodies of women that are burnt alive, or the pregnant belly that is kicked until the life growing inside it dies, the camps that exist without water and electricity, the taste of the mutton cooked by the Muslim chef that is later lost.
Guided by despair
Would it be fair to say Fate of Butterflies is unputdownable? Its compact sturdy look, black cover with a gleaming ax and the blood-stained title in the middle, its short length (less than 150 pages) and crisp sentences certainly lend to this description. Chances are if you start the book you won’t put it down till the end. Yet, I hesitate to call it unputdownable – not because it isn’t. But you won’t find yourself flipping faster through the pages to find out what happens next. In some sense, you already know. You’re more likely to be guided by your sense of doom rather than wonder. It’s like spotting at a gory car accident and being unable to look away, your breath stuck in your throat, lips parted and eyes widened in horror.
If the books gestures at a response from us, it is to ask us to confront the nightmares, to force ourselves to look at children raped in front of their mothers and mothers raped in front of their children, at the victims of lynching, at starving farmers killing themselves, and at those who say of these injustices: “A most unfortunate event, most condemnable. The work of an unknown miscreant. Best forgotten.”
That is what we must remember reading this book: It is cruel to forget any of this.
This article was first published in Scroll.in