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Book review of Santanu Bhattacharya’s One Small Voice: The unknown Indian


Bhattacharya’s debut novel tries to be an Everyman’s story

New Delhi,ISSUE DATE: Apr 17, 2023 | UPDATED: Apr 7, 2023 21:34 IST

There’s something odd about names in Santanu Bhattacharya’s debut novel. The story begins in 2012, with the protagonist, a male Bengali of approximately the same age as its author, being asked his name by a little girl on a railway station in Mumbai. “Once upon a time, he had many names, many homes, many friends. Now he has none,” he muses. “He is thirty years old, and doesn’t even know what name to call himself by.” Rewind 27 years, and the little boy is struggling to pronounce his own name: ‘Shubhankar Trivedi’ comes out mangled as ‘Shoob-uncle Dee-ve-di’, much to his parents’ dismay. How will he ever gain admission to the all-important English-medium convent school if he cannot say his name correctly? In addition to this, we have the added complication of the neighbours’ identical twin girls being called Dhwani and Dwiti Dwivedi. Life, it seems (at least in Bengali neighbourhoods) is full of tongue-twisters.

Why am I bothering to tell you this? I’m not really sure—it’s definitely a theme in this mess of a novel, but quite ‘why’ escapes me.

The plotline ping-pongs between the 1990s and 2012-15, highlighting moments from Shubhankar’s life and interweaving them with key moments in India’s recent history: the Babri Masjid riots in 1992, the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, the election of Narendra Modi in 2014. There are two key incidents on which our protagonist’s life hinges.

The first takes place when he is 10 years old, and witnesses the immolation of an innocent Muslim man. It is a horrific sight: “A column of fire with the face of a man on it, flames licking the body, like a mythical creature that had just emerged from the earth in a yagna.” Unable to speak about it afterwards, the boy is forever marked by this act of “unhinged barbarism”.

Shubhankar can’t remember the man’s name, only that it begins with an ‘M’. Over and over again, we read of his struggle to recall, or to find out, the man’s name: only then, the author hints, can he achieve what Americans like to call ‘closure’. The unfortunate effect of this writerly ploy is that our (Hindu) hero’s mental anguish eclipses the physical suffering of the (Muslim) victim. When he does discover M’s actual name, it turns out to be stupendously apt—(Mudassir, meaning ‘engulfed’ or ‘enveloped’) there’s even a neat little name-check at the very end: Shubh means good, auspicious. It’s a strangely pat formulation and left me wondering (again), what is it with him and names?

The other key event in Shubhankar’s life is only ever referred to in italic air-quotes as ‘the incident’. It is not, just to be clear, the incident of the Muslim man being murdered. It is a different ‘incident’ and we don’t get to it until almost three-quarters of the way through the book, by which time it has been so heavy-handedly flagged up, that we’re almost past caring.

There are some clunky passages, which an editor should have sorted out before it got to the page: “Papa gave her a scowl, and she’d scowled back with ample elan,” or, even more peculiarly: “[Shubhankar] massaged Shruti’s softness with his left handâ€æ finding his way through her bra, stopping at her nipple. It was supple, moving in directions he willed it to, yet finding its centre every time.”

One Small Voice aspires to be a sort of Everyman’s story—“The story of a billion ordinary people. A billion exceptional stories.” The book comes wreathed in prizes and plaudits, including The Observer Best Debut Novel for 2023, but there is a yawning gap between ambition and execution. Let’s hope that Bhattacharya’s next will at least narrow that gap.

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