Book Review: Gautam Bhatia’s The Wall excels in critiquing society

The titular wall of Gautam Bhatia’s new book is not as much a means of excluding the outsiders as it is of confining the insiders within the city it encircles. Applying the trope of a sky-scraping wall, the author manages to pull off a work of fiction that is surprisingly original and enormous in scope and potential, writes  SHIVAM PARASHAR.

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EVERY praiseworthy work of imagined fiction is marked by a reflection of the real. And it is in this category that the author’s debut fantasy fiction, The Wall, finds itself.

The book starts off with the protagonist Mithila and her group of renegades trying to break the wall which encircles their city. This conflict against the supernatural acts as the primary rudder of the story. The more interesting ‘conflict with the society’ fully emerges in the foreground only towards the end.

The anti-utopian ‘Sumer’ serves as a backdrop for conversations on democracy, dissent, and discrimination.

Sumer is a microcosm within an established political system and Bhatia seems to enjoy exploring the fictitious history of a fictitious land, which certainly enriches the book. The way of life in ‘Sumer’ is shaped by The Wall. It defines the city’s culture, political, and legal system. Despite its idiosyncrasies, the presence of religious fanaticism, hegemony of the ruling class, and social inequalities; the city is much like any other.

The lawyer in Gautam Bhatia, is visible throughout, so much so that it would not be amiss to set it beside his work of legal scholarship.

The readers, just like the citizens of Sumer, are taken through the history of bloodshed under a tyrannical dictator. They are warned about the perils of a revolution and the merits of maintaining the status quo in a primitive democratic system. Yet the democracy of Sumer is fractured. There is a skewed power dynamic with a lack of representation. The concentration of power in a select few is brewing an unrest. Questions regarding the utility and nature of a democracy abound.

The author depicts a cult with its own set of blasphemy laws and has a militia to enforce it. A power struggle between the religion adds a different dimension to the story. The LGTBTQ characters have been afforded an appreciable space that goes beyond token representation.

By displaying democracy in its first principles, the author lays bare out its flaws for the reader to see.

In framing a very topical (and also, perpetual) debate of free speech, the book reveals a familiar pattern of suppression of dissent by the State. In its depiction of censures and religious diktats, the readers would find themselves in all too familiar grounds. The book raises questions like ‘What principles are open to dissent and what are not’ and ‘Are there any that are beyond the scope of disagreement?’.

The Wall is not an indictment of democracy but instead an appreciation of its true nature, a sentiment echoed by the city’s first president: “The spirit of our democracy is in the maidan (public forum)”.

However, a fractured evil governance system- no matter how nuanced- is a low hanging fruit in this genre.

Students of law and political science would be particularly delighted by the author’s meticulous treatment of procedures of the state. While there may be one too many explanations of legal provisions, it is wholly enjoyable.

What ‘The Wall’ truly excels in is in its critique of our society. It provides a world decidedly different from ours on several issues. The departure in certain instances harks at our own society’s failings. It shows that, despite a teetering democratic system, there are conscientious leaders and a workable system of checks and balances – things that the real world could do with.

Students of law and political science would be particularly delighted by the author’s meticulous treatment of procedures of the state. While there may be one too many explanations of legal provisions, it is wholly enjoyable.

The narrative structure falters in some respects initially, but the author recuperates soon enough to give it a befitting ending and a cliffhanger.  The lawyer in Gautam Bhatia, is visible throughout, so much so that it would not be amiss to set it beside his work of legal scholarship.

(Shivam Parashar is a law student at the University School of Law and Legal Studies, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi.)
The Leaflet