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Book Review: Dvarca by Madhav Mathur

By Imteyaz Alam

2-dvarca-coverImagine a country with one race, one language, and one religion where the state intrudes into the personal life of citizens. The state decides pregnancy and the traits of progeny to be born, distributes a quota of a type of food for each individual, decides the profession of people and promotes one language and one religion. The control is draconian and the thought process is manipulated and conditioned. It is boastfully declared that “Multi-culturism is dead”. It is a futuristic imaginary country depicted by Madhav Mathur in his new novel Dvarca.

Madhav Mathur, a Singapore-based writer, works for an MNC. Dvarca is the second novel by this writer-filmmaker. His first novel is The Diary of an Unreasonable Man. His award-winning films The Insomniac and The Outsiders have been screened at numerous festivals.

At a time when the ultranationalists and right wing forces are taking centrestage across the globe, Dvarca is well-timed. The book depicts the future but has an imprint of the past and is quite relevant to the present as well. The author has a deep knowledge of mythology and history. The author also has a sharp observation of current developments. Madhav Mathur has skillfully crafted the story nicely, blending it with mythology, history, science and fiction.

The craft and story of Dvarca resembles George Orwell’s 1984. The telescreen of 1984 is modern interactive television. Two Minutes Hate is celebrated as the Hour of Honour. The Big brother of 1984 is the great leader called Shastriji. The network of spies in 1984 is replaced with the omnipresent DD — Distant Directives — that tracks the movement of every individual. Every right or wrong is done for the country and for religion. The motto of the fictional country is “THINK THE SAME ACT THE SAME BE THE SAME”. One country, one language, one way of life that is Navmarg is enforced by state apparatus. Uniformity is celebrated and diversity is hated. The people are blinded with hate against other countries, other languages, and other cultures. They are indoctrinated to believe and accept whatever comes from the state. “ASK NOT WHAT GOD AND COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU.” “ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR GOD AND COUNTRY.” The line between sport and war is blurred.

The title of the book is based on the ancient city Dvārakā., the city of great religious importance. The present-day Dwarka situated in the state of Gujarat, India is one of the char dhams (the four abodes/seats). The very title of the novel lays the foundation of the book on which the author constructs the edifice. The novel is full of allusion to history and mythology. The names of characters and events are named after characters from Hindu mythology. The women are named Jyotis, Miras, Aditis whereas men are named as Gandharva, Nakul, Arjuns, Vishwakarma etc. They are further identified by kalaava (wrist band) which shows the position of the individual in the hierarchical society of Dvarca.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Madhav Mathur

By Aminah Sheikh

Madhav Photo 2

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Not to sound too dramatic, but it is something I can’t stop doing. It’s how I make sense of things around me. There’s this French phrase that I can never pronounce correctly, but I feel it represents a lot of my reasons for writing. “l’esprit de l’escalier” – literally the spirit of the staircase, figuratively – things I should have said. This need to speak applies not only to my personal life, but to anything that moves me about the wider world.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recent book is called Dvarca and it is the first of an admittedly ambitious trilogy. It imagines a future dystopian world, where India has become a fascist nightmare with a bicolour flag and a new name – Dvarca. My reasons for writing this book are related to a troubling childhood experience, that I think I share with most people of my generation. We were kids when the Babri Masjid was demolished. We were kids when the blasts shook Mumbai and riots took lives. These incidents left a mark on me and made me aware, for the first time, that friction or unresolved anger exists in society. Dvarca is a way to take these divisive elements, and project them into the future while imagining the worst. It is speculative fiction that hopes to find a peaceful way back from a horrible scenario. I made a short video to explain my motivations for writing Dvarca.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I hope I see things differently and try to give them new life by recording them. This often makes for odd digressions and some indulgences, but they are all in service of bringing the reader into my world. The most important thing for me is to give the reader something new and exciting in the form of an idea or an expression. I understand that this obsession with exploring can lead to work that may challenge some readers. I just hope that their sense of the extraordinary matches mine.

Who are your favourite authors?

I will limit my answer to three. Mikhail Bulgakov, Herman Hesse and Hemingway. Ok I lied. Please add Philip K Dick, Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Camus, and Solzhenitsyn.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

It’ll sound like I’m plugging my book, but to be honest, Dvarca is the toughest piece of writing I have ever attempted. For three reasons:

First there were many occasions when I would stop mid-sentence and wonder if I was crossing the line, entering dangerous and unchartered territory. This was echoed by some publishers who rejected my work, finding the content risky.

Second, an entire world had to be created for this trilogy. It was not easy balancing character development, the story and world-building all at the same time. I hope the final published “mix” is palatable. Though one can never please all.

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Excerpts: Dvarca by Madhav Mathur

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Chicken & Egg

Jyoti was fast asleep in their bedroom. Baba was out for his night-shift and the children lay still, contorted and bent away from each other like the hands of a clock. It was ten- to-five. Gandharva shut Mira’s mouth and stopped Nakul from sucking his thumb. He watched them for a moment, before carrying on.

He didn’t want to risk waking Jyoti by using the toilet attached to their room and decided to use the small common toilet next to the kitchen to clean up. Rain had found a way to bounce off the window-shutters and wet everything from the lights to the floor. He looked at himself in the mirror. He was still wrapped in the foul-smelling cloth from the street. It had saved his life. He took it off and flipped it around to fold it away. His face went deathly pale when he saw the other side of his new found vestment. Something was written on the cloth. He leaned in close and read the words. They looked like scratches after a desperate fight.

‘WHAT CAME FIRST? POLITICS OR RELIGION?’

How could he have been so careless? How did he end up with a cloth that clearly came from the pariahs? He crumpled it into a ball. He panicked and splashed his face with water to make sure it wasn’t some sort of lurid Vision. Had he been seen with it? Would they believe that he had nothing to do with it?

He tried to wash off the unholy letters but they were stitched on. He looked around frantically for a way to get rid of the cloth. He could not burn it on the stove, all gas supplies were switched off after 10:00 p.m. for energy conservation. He could not carry it out and throw it away; it was too risky. He tried to flush the ball down the toilet, but it was too big. There was nothing in the bathroom of use, just some of Baba’s toiletries.

Gandharva rushed out to the kitchen and found one of Jyoti’s scissors. He hurtled back into the bathroom and pulled the door shut. He lowered the toilet seat-cover and sat down to cut the cloth into smaller pieces. The scissors had thick, blunt blades. He made some headway with them and then decided to rip the cloth with his hands. He was no Nakul or Arjun, but he tried his best.

“DETECTION: ELEVATION IN VITAL RATES. PLEASE REPORT.”

The veins of his forehead popped out like new hill ranges after a deep seismic disturbance. He quickly responded with the first thing that came to his flustered mind.

“Stomach upset. Recovering.”

He sat atop the commode with the stinking shawl in his hands. There were words stitched all over it. Some portions of the writing were illegible because of the indelible grease stains. He read a sentence.

‘YOU’VE FALLEN FOR THE OLDEST TRICK. THEY KNOW WHAT YOU WILL DO, BEFORE YOU DO IT. THEY’VE DRAWN LINES IN THE SKY AND LINES IN THE SAND, TO MARK GOD AND COUNTRY.’

Who were they addressing? Who was speaking? Why?

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