One Small Voice by Santanu Bhattacharya review – meltdown in Mumbai

A young man’s troubled existence mirrors wider social and political turmoil, in this epic yet intimate debut

Three quarters of a century have passed since India’s independence. Now, midnight’s great-grandchildren face a country fractured mentally as much as socially: half democracy, half westernised, half madhouse, half global superpower, where gurus, imams and gyrating TikTok stars vie for the hearts, souls and wallets of hundreds of millions. “You know, the problem with this country is that we believe money will solve everything. It doesn’t,” says a Muslim character in Santanu Bhattacharya’s debut novel, his family victims of religious riots. It may seem trite, but this was indeed the hope that India lived on until the mid-2010s. Yet a rising tide means floating boats no longer. The common people have become cross-tickers at elections, another character says. They are “little specks of dust … They will never be anything more, and there is nothing lesser left for them to be.”

Shubhankar “Shabby” Trivedi is the witness rather than hero of One Small Voice. As a child at a wedding, he watches a mob immolate a young Muslim tailor – “a column of fire with the face of a man on it, flames licking the body” – and is profoundly affected. The novel follows his attempts to outrun the mental and societal forces haunting him, as he moves from the socially conservative northern city of Lucknow to find life and freedom in the cosmopolitan, hard-drinking, dope-smoking, anything-goes fantasyland of mid-2000s Mumbai.

The writing is unshowy, clinical, instinctively humane. India is here in all its senses, Mumbai the focus: “a mad grimy unruly untamed unfazed uncowering beautiful soft blue-green city”, a place of “flogging of flesh, tearing of freshly starched cotton, flying of dust, dragging of bodies, breaking of bones, cracking of glass, shrieks of hatred”, one that surrenders to “postmonsoon stupor, letting its harsh sun go limp, a haze descending to eye level”.

The novel is epic in scope and yet composed of intimate moments, with the sinuous double timeline exploring how the Shubhankar of the 2000s, yearning for freedom beyond the horizons imposed by his parents, becomes the burnt-out, semi-invalid dependant of 2013, victim of a mob attack and a subsequent mental breakdown. Even after the attack, he and his parents play their allotted roles, “angry parent and indignant son”. “Upbringing is all about strictness and discipline. Too much love makes children comfortable,” says Shubhankar’s grandmother, a brilliantly sparky presence. Being a “kaamchor” – workshy – is the worst insult a parent can use.

The atmosphere is quietly doom‑laden from the outset. Many subcontinental readers will guess that Shubhankar’s attack has something to do with the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Bhattacharya wrongfoots them. Indian politics has become an all-out race to court the newly globalised, piously Hindu lower middle classes; Shabby’s casual menage a trois with his flatmates Ganjeri, a hippy Muslim who slowly finds his faith, and Shruti, who cannot “laugh with abandon without ten men turning to look”, becomes the Indian interfaith experience in miniature. They begin to tread “on eggshells around each other, looking out for trigger warnings, changing subjects to keep the peace”.

The book is a pointillist, surgically observed portrait of its main character, as he encounters the petty social cruelties and unfulfilled beauty of the 21st-century Indian nation – at work, at home, at parties, on beaches, highways and in the stolen moments that make up his shattered life. The plot is slow-burning, fuelled by rising anxiety, and wonderfully natural, with threads weaving in and out.

Bhattacharya well knows the central problem of 21st-century Indian writing, in which foreign-educated, non-resident graduates tell the stories of people who are “voiceless, lie silent, witnessing their lives being reincarnated on other people’s tongues” – as he refers to the competing explanations of Shubhankar’s breakdown and withdrawal from life. He does succumb at times to the pressure on BAME writers in the west to showcase every inequality, every injustice, every strata of society – if novels had any social currency left at all in India, this one would be dismissed by the government as the work of yet another Oxford-educated “anti-national”. Yet it’s the assured control of the writing that endures, and the hopefulness and yearning for a better future that infuses the latter part of this book. A portrait of both intolerance and forgiveness, growth and letting go, One Small Voice will be one of the best debuts this year.

Rahul Raina’s How to Kidnap the Rich is published by Abacus. One Small Voice by Santanu Bhattacharya is published by Fig Tree (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Rahul Raina

The GuardianTramp

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