Uniting Hendrix, Rimbaud and the sari; David Davidar's new novel charts a course from India to Canada
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 September 2007)

The knowledge that religion can drive otherwise intelligent people to murder has been lodged at the centre of the world's consciousness ever since that terrible moment six years ago this morning. David Davidar, an Indian writer and publisher who runs Penguin Canada, doesn't mention 9/11 in his novel The Solitude of Emperors ( McClelland & Stewart), but it would be impossible not to think of it while reading his story about a homicidal struggle between Hindus and Muslims.

On Dec. 6, 1992, Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a 16th-century mosque at the Uttar Pradesh temple city of Ayodhya. They claimed the site was the sacred birthplace of Lord Rama. The government made no great effort to save the mosque, perhaps because the violent passion of the Hindus intimidated the police or perhaps because certain politicians were sympathetic to fanatical Hindu nationalism. Muslims responded with violence, and Hindus replied with more violence. About 2,000 people were killed, many of them beaten to death in the street by gangs of young men who were suddenly persuaded that it was virtuous to kill Hindus because they were Hindus or Muslims because they were Muslims.

"It felt inevitable," Davidar said when I talked to him last week. "It was like a plane crash you knew was happening and nothing could stop." But the killing was not a total surprise to Indians. "India is a tinderbox," Davidar said. "There's something like this always just under the surface."

As he sees it, extremists promoting these passions are not motivated by religious feeling. "For them it is a means to an end," a way of enhancing their stature and pushing their political agenda. They appeal especially to the hopeless, who are grateful for something that gives purpose to their impoverished and in many ways empty lives.

The Solitude of Emperors, which Davidar describes as a frankly political book, mixes unexpected characters with historical events. At one point, for instance, we meet Noah, a cynic who loves India but hates its unruly, hypocritical passions. He also adores Jimi Hendrix -- in his view the greatest of all guitar players --and quotes his own poetry alongside Rimbaud's and Cavafy's.

He says his extensive romantic life is enriched by the ubiquitous saris: "Nowhere in the world will you find a garment that better celebrates the beauty of a woman than the sari. Flowing like water, settling like rain, tantalizing and bold as it switches and slides off breast and buttock, it's a garment that's untailored and pure, unsullied by the slicing of scissors and the piercing of needles, a garment of the Gods that's lasted, virtually unchanged, for 3,000 years." That speech reminded me that India long ago produced the world's most imaginative erotic sculpture.

But Davidar's central figure, Vijay, comes across as a familiar character from the fiction writer's bag of tricks, a wan and passive fellow, the sort who shows up in Chekhov, waiting nervously for his life to begin. Vijay yearns to escape his boring hometown.

In an uncharacteristically bold move, he gets a job on a Bombay weekly paper, The Indian Secularist, working for a famous editor, Rustom Sorabjee. For Davidar, Vijay exemplifies the more or less helpless people on whom history acts. He nearly dies at the hands of a Hindu gang that believes he's a Muslim. Sorabjee explains, to Vijay and the reader, that Indian secularism includes respect for all religions. "We don't believe in throwing religion overboard," he says. He thinks it has its place and turns malign only when exceeding its boundaries.

He argues that simple-minded fundamentalists pare people down to a single characteristic, their religious identity, excluding whatever makes them unique. A sensible religion would call that heresy, since it implies that God created extremely limited creatures.

Sorabjee has been writing a book for high-school students with the same title as Davidar's novel. It concerns "the three greatest Indians who ever lived" -- Samraat Ashoka, a Buddhist in antiquity, Shahenshah Akbar, a 16th-century Muslim Mughal emperor, and Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu who gave the 20th century a fresh definition of mass social action. Each of them developed a soaring vision for India that transcended caste and creed. When Vijay tires of social tension, he reads another chapter of Sorabjee's book, passing on to the reader idealistic views of India's history and its future. But idealistic dreams aren't enough. Beaten down by India, Vijay emigrates to Canada and relative happiness as a bank teller.

Davidar began his working life much as Vijay does. He went on the staff of Himmat, where the editor was Rajrohan Gandhi, the grandson and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi. Then he went to Harvard for a course in publishing and had the good fortune to meet Peter Mayer, then the international chairman of Penguin Books. The company was considering a branch in India and Mayer recruited the 26-year-old Davidar to organize it. He made a great success of it and stayed there until he moved to Toronto in 2004 on a three-year contract. He liked Canada and Canadian publishing so much that he signed on for another three years.

In the business he's gained respect as both an imaginative leader and a scrupulous delegator; he thinks you grow good editors only if you give them most of the responsibility. When Penguin Canada decides a manuscript is attractive, he authorizes higher-than-normal advances, which annoys competing publishers but has so far drawn no complaints from writers or their agents. He has an old-fashioned and commendable respect for keeping the company backlist alive and profitable. For instance, Penguin is now reprinting, in repackaged form, the 11 Benny Cooperman novels of Howard Engel, around the same time No. 12 appears.

As for novels in general, Davidar quickens to stories set against great issues or historic transformations -- and the writer Davidar follows the publisher Davidar, or vice versa. His first book, The House of Blue Mangoes, published in 2002, chronicles three generations of a family under the British Raj, the rise of Gandhi and the culmination of independence. The Solitude of Emperors, shorter and less ambitious, focuses on one tragic theme and brings its readers into close touch with both the social anxieties of India and religion's tragic potential, an issue that has surprised millions, or maybe billions, by becoming a central concern of 21st-century life.

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