Democracies are a fragile affair. The pride of the ruling class, the prejudice of the majority, and the perils of the underprivileged are all part and parcel of the crumbling structures of our democracies. Asian fiction released in the past few decades is doing a tremendous job in shedding light on their tattered states. History is shown as what it is and the majoritarian politics weighing the minority down is finally coming to the fore.
In Moth Smoke, Mohsin Hamid subjects contemporary Pakistan to intense scrutiny through the gradual decline of the main character, Daru. Daru owes his education and his high-profile job to his best friend Ozi’s father, Khurram. Ozi pretty much has everything that Daru doesn’t — a corrupt father, upper class upbringing, foreign education, and a beautiful wife. These assets define the elites of Lahore, so much so that they can get away even after committing heinous crimes. Their moral bankruptcy impacts the underprivileged, like the teenage boy Ozi mows down before recklessly fleeing the scene.
Moth Smoke is an astute depiction of people trapped between two worlds. The story set against the backdrop of the 1998 nuclear tests, presents how in our modern democracies a lack of generational wealth can make someone spiral into a life of crime. Daru’s attraction and contempt towards Ozi’s wife and Ozi respectively pushes Daru into the belly of Pakistan’s morally corrupt judicial system. While Daru’s moral ambiguity has been evident from the start, the socio-political factors responsible for his transformation from a banker to a drug peddler and eventually a petty criminal cannot be overlooked. This novel lays bare the insatiable greed and pride of the upper class who can even buy the law and make it work according to their whims. The police are ineffective, therefore there is no respite from the devastating consequences foisted on those who are bereft of money and power. The apathy of the Pakistani government is resulting in the destruction of a nation where the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer every day. Hamid showcases how low a country can stoop when corruption, selfishness, and moral depravity take over.
Meena Kandasamy’s Gypsy Goddess casts a spotlight on the perils of Dalit agricultural workers in a country where equity exists only on paper. The book is centered around a massacre that takes place in Kilvenmani, India, on December 25, 1968. Around this time Marxist ideology gained popularity among the Dalit community of India. The Dalits have been tagged as untouchables and relegated to the fringes of Indian society. In Kandasamy’s fictionalized account of the Kilvenmani tragedy, the landlords have murdered a popular communist leader, which leads to the strike of the farmworkers. They are being manipulated into working for their oppressors yet they are determined to fight for justice. Dalit women are brutally assaulted. The cops try hard to intimidate the Dalits and fines are imposed on them. Goons savagely killing the villagers are later allowed to go scot-free.
The author’s red-hot rage at the state of a country that has failed its people multiple times is palpable. The Indian democracy works only for the upper caste and the upper class whose privilege and pride cushions them from every harm. Even in 2022, caste-based violence is wrecking the country. Kandasamy focuses on how regardless of the bold claims our democracies make, the cultural and political ambiance still disfavor the Dalits. Her book is a grim portrayal of a country where the upper caste is driving the Dalits into oblivion.
The incident that this book talks about is not an individual instance of oppression. Kandasamy’s aim is to tell her readers how the ghosts of the past still haunt our current realities. Her fight is also against mainstream literature that has shunned and distorted Dalit narratives for decades. If we fail to accurately represent our minorities and provide them with the rights they deserve, how do we even take pride in being the largest democracy in the world?
Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, also set in India, chronicles the story of Jivan, who gets vilified by the prejudiced Indian society that criminalizes Muslims. After reading up on a terrorist attack at a railway station, Jivan poses a simple question. She posts on social media asking why the cops didn’t help ordinary people and doesn’t that make them — and in turn the government — terrorists too? Monstrous accusations, with little to no foundation in reality, follow. The mob mentality we can experience in social media disrupts her entire life. She is alleged to have been chatting with a terrorist recruiter. She is sent to jail for crimes she didn’t commit. This novel isn’t just about Jivan, but also about other characters like PT Sir and Lovely whose burgeoning careers will be at stake if they speak in favor of Jivan.
The world that Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir inhabit is corrupt and has them in a chokehold. Lands of poor people are bulldozed according to the convenience of those in power. Residents resettled in government housing have to make do with harrowing living conditions. Jivan becomes less and less a human and more and more the government’s scapegoat with every passing day. In India, it’s very easy to get labeled as anti-national if one dares to point out the flaws of the ruling party. The megalomania of the governing body thwarts protesting voices. The current political landscape is harrowing, to say the least. Recently, Muslim women have been targeted at large in educational institutes, and their right to wear the hijab has been up for debate. Majumdar, through the helplessness of Jivan, amplifies the voices of Muslims living in India currently whose right to live decent lives has become a pipe dream.
Even though India and Pakistan don’t represent the whole of Asia, they do form a major part of it. Thanks to white colonizers, these countries have a history of blood bath. During the Partition of India, both the countries suffered severe repercussions because of the whimsical decisions of those in power. If we look at the current political state of Asia, not much has changed in the past few years. Masters might have changed but the suffering of the masses have remained the same. The wellbeing of the common people are extremely far removed from what the political rulers have in mind. How do we call ourselves civilized if our democracies are unstable and governmental bodies are driven by hate and not empathy even in the 21st century? Contemporary Asian fiction poses a few hard-hitting questions about our democratic realties, urging us to elect and be better leaders.
Like Arundhati Roy rightly said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” The voices of common people are getting drowned by the political ambitions of the elites. The blatant disregard for the individual once again shows that the government is in no way of the people, by the people, and for the people.
If you wish to learn more about democracies, please check out these eight excellent reads!