Indian writing in English (IWE), however celebrated at home and abroad, rather than catching our eyes for the seriousness of theme and material often grabs our attention for its "tinsel glitter of celebrity."
Indian writing in the vernaculars, on the other hand, still gets loved, hated, discussed and fought over for dealing with an "aesthetics inseparable from questions of justice and equality."
Such an engagement, a legacy of India's Progressive Writers' Association, is at the heart of David Davidar's second novel, The Emperor of Solitude.
Like some of the socially conscious IWE novels of recent years, such as Sashi Tharoor's Riot, A Novel and Tabish Khair's Filming: A Love Story, The Emperor of Solitude takes us on a journey of India torn apart by the forces of communalism.
David Davidar has said that this novel is his protest against communalism, which in a way underpins the idea that the role of a writer as a partisan is still important and that writers should expose the ills of the society, just like journalists do, but with their own tools and in their own fashion.
The story is told through the eyes of Vijay, a South Indian small-town young man, who comes to Bombay in the early 1990s to work with a dedicated secularist, Rustom Sorabjee, the editor of a magazine, The Indian Secularist.
A young man with not great ambitions, Vijay's experience of meeting Sorabjee transforms him, making him conscious of the damage of communalism (mixing of religion and politics) in an otherwise great land of civilization where great leaders like Asoka, Akbar and Gandhi showed us how to reach out to people of all religions and races and how to live a life of peace and communal harmony.
Vijay witnesses the post-Babri Masjid Bombay riots and gets filled with horror. In the central part of the narrative, Sorabjee sends Vijay to Meham, a small tea town in the Nilgris to recover. There he meets Noah, a colourful character, a poet turned mad by the absolute demands of our world, and they become friends. By far, Noah's is the most interesting character in the entire novel. But even in Meham, communalism raises its ugly head. A Christian shrine, The Tower of God, becomes the object of political wrangling between the Christian community and a group of politically motivated Hindu right wingers. Tragedy follows which leaves Vijay further traumatised.
Running parallel to this story is a book within the novel, a book on India's ethos of secularism by Sorabjee. David has shared some great ideas on religion and life through the device of a book within a book.
Both through the main narrative and the book-within-the-book device, David's message of communal harmony comes through very clearly. It is just the kind of writing that one would locate at the heart of social change.
The Solitude of Emperors by David Davidar, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, S$32.95