The Solitude of Emperors

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-01-06
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd
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Suffocating in the small-town world of his parents, Vijay is desperate to escape to the raw energy of Bombay in the early 1990s. His big chance arrives unexpectedly when the family servant, Raju, is recruited by a right-wing organization. As a result of an article he writes about the increasing power of sectarian politicians, Vijay gets a job in a small Bombay publication,The Indian Secularist. There he meets Rustom Sorabjee the inspirational founder of the magazine who opens Vijay's eyes to the damage caused to the nation by the mixing of religion and politics. A year after his arrival in Bombay, Vijay is caught up in violent riots that rip though the city, a reflection of the upsurge of fundamentalism everywhere in the country. He is sent to a small tea town in the Nilgiri Mountains to recover, but finds that the unrest in the rest of India has touched this peaceful spot as well, specifically a spectacular shrine called The Tower of God, which is the object of political wrangling. He is befriended by Noah, an enigmatic and colourful character who lives in the local cemetery and quotes Pessoa, Cavafy, and Rimbaud, but is ostracized by a local elite obsessed with little more than growing their prize fuchsias. As the discord surrounding the local shrine comes to a head, Vijay tries to alert them to the dangers, but his intervention will have consequences he could never have foreseen. The Solitude of Emperorsis a stunningly perceptive novel about modern India, about what drives fundamentalist beliefs, and what makes someone driven, bold, or mad enough to make a stand. I thought about the taxi driver who had been murdered. Deepak hadn't said whether he was young or old, but I imagined him to be as young as I was, and there was a good chance that he, like me, was a recent immigrant to the city, perhaps from Hyderabad, or some smaller place that did not have enough work or resources to hold on to its young. He would have come here hoping to make his fortune, and maybe in time he would have. Why had he worn the badges of his faith to the very end, I wondered. Even when his life was at stake, why hadn't he thought to take them off? Maybe they were so much a part of him, he hadn't even seen them as symbols to be discarded. They would have helped him link himself to a community, of course, until he had saved enough to bring his family over from his home town because it was likely he had married young. Until this fateful day, his religion would have saved him from the loneliness of the room in the chawl or slum. He would go to the mosque, meet others as lonely as he was. They would do their namaz together, celebrate the great festivals of Id and Ramzan with feasts of biryani on Mohammed Ali Road. Yes, his religion had been good to him, until the day it had devoured him. FromThe Solitude of Emperors From the Hardcover edition.

Author Biography

David Davidar is president and publisher of Penguin Canada and also a director on the board of Penguin India, of which he was a founding member. Davidar’s first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, was published in sixteen countries and was an international bestseller.

From the Hardcover edition.



They are the invisible ones, the ones who were too small, weak, poor or slow to escape the onrush of history. No obituaries mark their passing, no memorials honour their name and we don’t remember them because in our eyes they never existed. Yet we ignore them at our peril, if only because their fate today could be ours tomorrow; history is an insatiable tyrant.

I have never been much good at ritual or ceremonial homage — I blame this on my parents, who never really taught me — so I have had to invent a private rite of remembrance for Noah, a man who was ignored by almost everyone for as long as he lived, but who, in his death, affected me more powerfully than I would have thought possible. I can picture his mocking smile now, for the ceremony I’m about to conduct takes its inspiration from a somewhat bizarre funeral I saw him preside over all those many years ago. It is the middle of winter in this northern city, and even though the bitter cold would deter most from setting foot outside a heated room, I have always been stubborn and determined once I have decided to do something, and so I shuffle through the wind and snow to the cemetery closest to my house.

Once there, I look for a grave with an angel on its headstone; there is a crust of snow on the grave and I scrape it off, unroll the plastic mat I have brought with me, and sit down. Noah wouldn’t have liked this cemetery, it’s too neat and formal; he believed the dead were entitled to comfortable lived-in surroundings. He would have missed his beloved trees: the great peepul with leaves like flattened spearheads and the jacarandas that flung sprays of blue into the deeper blue of the Nilgiri sky. Here the maples are bare, and the evergreens are too dull and uniform to have appealed to him. But there is nothing I can do about the surroundings, so I begin to unpack the rucksack I have brought with me. I take out a bottle of rum, a cigarette packet (I do not smoke and the cigarettes have been replaced by two joints that I have procured with some difficulty from a Bolivian colleague), a cheap plastic lighter, a CD player and, finally, a manuscript. I sprinkle some of the rum around the grave to propitiate the dead, put the headphones on, and am preparing to light up a joint when I hear the sound of an approaching vehicle. I am grateful for the cover of the snowstorm because I doubt the groundskeeper whose vehicle this must be would understand if he caught me here.

In the twelve years since Noah died, I have performed this ceremony annually — in other cemeteries, other cities, in Madras, Bombay, in London, a city I passed through on my way to Canada — and every time I’ve carried it out surreptitiously, for it is not something that can be explained away easily. The vehicle sweeps past, its driver an indistinct figure in the cab, and silence descends again. I apologize to Grace MacKinnon (1902—1972), whose grave I have temporarily taken over, switch on the CD player, and to the sound of Jim Morrison singing ‘Riders on the Storm’ I light the joint. The first drag sets me coughing uncontrollably; I wait for my agitated lungs to stop protesting, take another hit, then perform the final part of the ceremony. I pull out a torch from the rucksack, switch it on, shake the snow off my manuscript and begin reading aloud the last chapter. I have neither the effrontery nor the imagination to make this the sort of book Noah would have admired, but my years as a journalist have equipped me with enough tools to thread together a coherent, sturdy narrative. In the course of the decade it has taken me to complete the book — by any accounting that would be deemed slow, slightly over a chapter a year, but I should point out that it has gone through five drafts — I think I have finally put down a version of the events of the winter of 1993/4 that I am satis

Excerpted from The Solitude of Emperors by David Davidar
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