This is India’s first adult audiobook and SMS novel—introductions that will daunt the average bookworm. Especially if you, like me, run scared of FM Radio. Deaf Heaven reads very like FM when it begins—cacophonous, logorrheic, ubiquitous—and then suddenly, before you know it, you’re listening, listening. In one grand rant the book screams out the grief that dare not speak its name—the lie that is India.
Of late there have been plenty of non-novels about the state of the subcontinent. Tightly-knit, impermeable narratives of general rot that never quite leap the synapse between the page and the reader’s brain. They are, like the India they portray, coarse and thoughtless, their slattern prose curiously immune to editorial rebuke. These are colonial narratives, pages from today’s gazetteer—inventorying and categorising for containment and control, this mad circus for which the non-Indian reader will eagerly shed forex. Sure, they win big prizes and make great movies, but as novels they’re non-starters. They fail to colonise the brain, because they burn out after shouting “we are like that only”. If they are larval forms of the evolving genre of Indic, then Deaf Heaven makes it to butterfly.
The narrator is a dead librarian, and she has to say everything she can before her body is discovered on Monday morning. As a device this has street cred, the undead buzz on every wall, since Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. But let’s overlook our boring librarian. She is largely irrelevant in a vibrant multilayered roman a clef. Everybody who’s somebody in the tabloids is here, with it all hanging out—a given in this genre. So why is Deaf Heaven different? While the others let the reader jaywalk on amber, this one compels halts for the red light.
Be it a Bollywood Karva Chauth or a lesbian mile-high, a bandh or an abortion, Pinki Virani uses events as symptoms to diagnose the larger malady—hate. Misogyny and communalism are portrayed without any attempt to rationalise them. Hurrah. So too is our brutish callousness towards our children.
What’s the story? Or which one? Bhagya of Chennai, stranded in a Delhi marriage, having to choose between pink and blue files at the antenatal clinic? Aviva, bride-in-waiting for her elderly soon-to-be-divorced groom? Damayanti, Bollywood wife happily still HIV-negative? Manya, caught in the xenophobic world of Marathi manoos? Princess Czaerandhari and journalist Nafisa, whose rational discourse can be read only on SMS? Qudsiya, whose elegant composure hides her heartbreak? Superstree Inc?
Oh yes! There are men. Bastards mostly. But one senses there might be decent ones waiting in the sidelines.
The last 100 pages are pure polemic, but the narrative sustains this with ease, perhaps because it’s your anger and mine. The words, naive, earnest, refuse artifice and outline the utter passivity of hate: “Evil does not need religion, it needs only a figment of collective imagination and an empty space for the haters to pour into it everything they are told they must detest.”
The prose is excruciating, at times execrable. Maybe that’s device. But who cares? This book has pluralism—and not just of language—that makes it truly Indic.