These are the words that come to mind when reading Santanu Bhattacharya’s debut novel One Small Voice. Even after seventy-six years of independence, India has a fractured identity. India is a country caught between the cusp of being westernized or going back to their national roots; a nation that is scrambling to become a global superpower while millions of citizens don’t know where their next meal will come from; a country where gurus and god-men are respected and celebrated more than scientists and artists; a nation where a criminal record is more relevant than an educational certificate to hold government offices. Unfortunately, this is the reality of our beloved and beautiful nation, and Bhattacharya astutely portrays it in his novel.
The central character of the novel is Shubhankar “Shabby” Trivedi, who is more of a spectator/witness than a hero. The readers are treated to graphic descriptions of violence throughout the novel and one such instance is during Trivedi’s childhood when he watched an angry mob burn a young Muslim tailor. The gritty violent nature of the scene had a major impact on the child. The novel spans three decades and charts Trivedi’s life as he tries to outrun the psychological and societal forces haunting him as he journeys from orthodox north Lucknow to seek freedom and rebellion in the urban cityscape of mid-2000s Mumbai.
Bhattacharya is not just mentioning violent and traumatic events such as the many religious riots in India over the years. He is nuancedly portraying the implications, causes, and consequences of the lives that such an event touches. Globalization, inter-faith experiences and the fleeting nourishment of urban life are all intertwined in his work. In the novel, we meet characters such as Ganjeri, a hippy Muslim who is in a love-hate relationship with his faith, and Shruti, who cannot “laugh with abandon without ten men turning to look”, a characteristic trope of how our behaviors are dictated by societal expectations.
The book’s main characters are complex yet the language to describe them is so lucid. The novel is a poignant critique of post-globalization modern nationalist India, which is still reeling from the trauma of colonization and religious persecution, and that reflects on its characters. It also focuses a great deal on the Indian familial structure and the burden of expectations that Indian parents thrust onto their children. We find moments of understanding through the everyday interactions of the characters in the most relatable of places such as a party, a family gathering, at home, and at work.
Bhattacharya is 41 years old and moved to the UK seven years ago to do an MA in public policy at Oxford. He now lives in London and works as an education consultant. He has already won several prizes for his writing including the Mo Siewcharran prize in 2021 and the Life Writing prize. He is well aware of the societal implications of an Oxford-taught NRI writer talking about a country he does not reside in and voicing characters, who do not fall under the purview of his “elite” lived experiences. He is also wary of the political backlash the novel might receive because it hits too close to home. The writer is hopeful that his readers will able to able to venture into his novel without any preconceived notions and enjoy a poignant, slow-burn, and visceral story set in 21st-century India.
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