When we are threatened, we build boundaries to protect ourselves. Our existence is under siege and so we forego some of our liberties, for a short while, to ensure that we survive, so that we may live again. But an age passes and the memory of a world beyond those boundaries perishes, like a muscle that has atrophied from lack of use. And the boundaries, which were meant to be tools, now hold dominion over our very identity. We are caged by them. Everything within those lines is us, and everything outside is alien. The liberties we sacrificed become dangerous vices that must be shunned, and visions of a world beyond boundaries that have long since outlived their usefulness must be suppressed.
With respect to Blake, even if we opened our eyes wide enough to see the world in a grain of sand, handicapped by our boundaries we could only ever see a limited one. To resist is to destroy our identity, yes, but only so that we may forge anew a better one—one without those restraints. The thrill of the forbidden, and the yearning for that which has been lost, gnaws away at every waking moment. What recourse remains but to answer the siren beckoning us to freedom? This is what The Wall, Gautam Bhatia’s debut novel of speculative fiction, explores in a heart-wrenchingly beautiful story.
In this novel, a literal Wall encloses the city of Sumer. There is no way around it, no gates to pass through it, and no way to dig under it. It is seemingly too high to cross over. The Wall has stood for thousands of years and the Sumerians have never known a world outside it. A religious sect called the Shoortans establish themselves as its guardians and enforce the notion that the Wall must never be crossed. Mithila and her fellow “Young Tarafians”—named after a poet, Taraf, who wrote about one day seeing the horizon where land meets sky—want nothing more than to breach the barrier separating them from the unknown. This yearning to look beyond is not just for a “vague psychological satisfaction”; nor is it unique to them. All Sumerians have this “smara.” How can they not, when the Wall looms over them whichever way they look—a constant, daunting reminder of their limits. For Mithila however, in all her youthful idealism, this smara burns brightest and brings her into direct conflict with not just the Shoortans, but all of Sumer. As Councillor Amrit puts it, “What do we lose in our quest for the world? Nothing but Sumer” (p. 336).
Sumer is a highly organized city, divided into concentric circles—each of which houses a specific category of workers. The river Rasa and its tributaries, meanwhile, sustain life by providing a source of clean water. Sumerians do not want for food, clothing or shelter. They are not ruled by tyrants. They have freedoms and liberties of speech and movement. A life of pain and suffering, at least the kind we might expect to find in more authoritarian regimes, is rare.
At first reading, then, The Wall offers a discussion of an ambiguous utopia. On a societal level, life in Sumer is comfortable, but stagnant. Familiar everyday routines have internalized the need for boundaries, social, political, and religious; at the same time, ambiguity is experienced and realized on an individual level. Invisible walls that regulate ideas are constructed and torn down by individual citizens: Tefnakth and his Coterie are a splinter group of the Shoortans rebelling against consolidation of mythology under a single text; Marwana, as leader of The Select, seeks to promote scientific temper among Sumerians, often in direct contradiction to Shoortanism; as a progressive Council Elder, Sanchika fights to bring about a social revolution via land ownership reform so that the inequities suffered by people in the outer circles are reduced. For Mithila, these are all distant concerns, second to the necessity of breaching the Wall. These characters represent a multi-faceted resistance to societal conformity and make the utopia in The Wall different from its antecedents. What makes it a better story, though, is that it understands the possibilities inherent in a messy world of rules designed to achieve dogmatic perfection.
Thus, by rebuking static, formulaic utopias in favour of dynamic, complex societies, The Wall asserts itself a descendent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1972). However, it also functions as a contemporary response to The Dispossessed. For one, it has pointed infrastructural differences: in The Dispossessed, for example, “[t]here was a wall [… but it] did not look important … An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it”—and binary, contrasting locations, Anarres and Urras, as opposed to the singular-but-heterodox location of Sumer. Further, The Wall agrees with and builds upon Samuel Delany’s critique that Le Guin’s Annaresti society was not radical enough around gender and sexuality : for instance, The Dispossessed’s main character, Shevek, has a brief affair with his childhood friend, Bedap, in a society that is sufficiently liberal in its acceptance of non-binary individuals; yet, Bedap abruptly exits and never returns. Reading the novel in today’s postmodern world, the effect feels vague and perhaps merely symbolic. On the other hand, in a semi-closed ecosystem such as Sumer—where proportions and populations must be strictly controlled—Mithila’s relationship and affection for Rama, a Council Elder’s daughter, is not cursory or anonymous. In fact, it is considered a “pure union”. Bhatia’s subversion of modern symbology is laudable because he directly confronts the socio-political evolution of Sumer rather than undercut it by only implying it.
Most significantly though, while The Dispossessed struggles with the question of revolution, The Wall struggles with the question of memory. In the former, Anarres rebelled against Urras centuries ago, but they forget why. All they remember is that reconciliation is impossible and that they are better off by themselves. In doing so, Anarresti society stagnates and it takes a visit to Urras by an open-minded traveler—Shevek—to realize its limits. Here, we see the Nietzschean conception of objectivity—that understanding collective cultural points of view requires perspective—at play. Shevek is portrayed as a just agent of change who stands above that which he judges because he does so objectively. Perspective makes him a powerful protagonist. In The Wall, Bhatia cripples Mithila by removing the possibility of gaining an outside perspective, and asks: “Can you ever know desire in a bounded world?” (p. 41)
Mithila’s challenge is two-fold. One, she has to convince herself and others that Sumer is bounded, and two, she must demonstrate that seeking an unbound world is an immeasurably priceless endeavor. After all, you can’t really ask for freedom if you already think you are free—and you certainly can’t put a price on it. Standing in her way is Shoortan High Priest Rastogi, the human embodiment of cognitive constipation, wielding unhistorical attitude as a weapon. He has convinced fellow Sumerians that breaching the Wall is blasphemous, that Sumer is perfect as it is: “walled, caged, stifled, suffocated… everything that you [Mithila] would think is deformed” (p. 297). In opposition, Mithila cannot speak of the world beyond; she cannot guarantee the safety of Sumer, and she has no evidence that crossing over the Wall will lead to any tangible benefits. She must instead fight from within and her only tool for the revolution is memory—a memory of a world without the Wall. Bhatia masterfully frames the process of achieving freedom as one of self-discovery shaped by forces of history, an almost Hegelian stance.
Comparisons with The Dispossessed aside, The Wall has a distinct, independent Indian identity. More than names of people and places that sound like mine, what makes this story quintessentially Indian is its nuanced understanding of a sense of the past. India has had a rich tradition of oral history; the meaning of historical events has often been selectively constructed as they are passed down verbally across generations. Thus, historical tradition has been neither value-free nor value-neutral. Many truths have existed simultaneously as children of time. History is alive. Yet, a few texts from ancient India that do exist are considered sacred. This creates a tension between the affective mental acts of remembering and the ossified commitments of written language. Human memory is faulty, and the moral consequences of this can range from feelings of pride to intense reactions of shame, guilt, and regret. The psychological effect, meanwhile, is that we are loathe to break from the past and embrace change. Finally, the epistemological result is that our imagination is stunted.
The Wall captures this conflict well. On one side, we have Mithila arguing, “When they say that history is memory, and memory must be oral. That is the way of forgetting, and I will not let Sumer live it’s life in an endless circle” (p. 139). On the other side, Rastogi counters, “You can’t write history. That will cage it, kill it’s soul” (p. 140). The paradox here, which is also very Indian in nature, is that—even as they say this—it is Mithila who recites poetry and stories of her ancestors, while Rastogi clings to his Black Book that has “recorded” the past. This culminates in a debate about history and freedom. What Sumer remembers is that Malan, an almost mythical figure, apparently crossed a line he was not supposed to. The Builders, equally mythical, erected the Wall as punishment. Today, Sumerians accept it as their destiny to live within these boundaries until such time as the Builders choose to set them free. Even when they agree to temporarily suspend these beliefs, their fundamental premise remains to weigh the gains in breaching the Wall against the losses—they fail to imagine non-utilitarian factors.
Reading The Wall was an exhausting experience for me. There is so much to say about this story that any single analysis by itself, however rigorous, will be a limited one. To Bhatia’s credit, the prose is extremely accessible even as it seeks to impart a complex message. The novel’s storytelling works at the environmental level, driving our understanding of different strata of its world, beginning right from the prologue: it is night as Alvar starts from the Maidan, an open ground, and makes his way to an underground pit at the edge of the Wall, where his fellow Young Tarafians are attempting to dig their way under; the sounds of Shoortans pursuing him, the foreboding layout of the city as it closes in on him, and finally, the pit where the group discovers that the Wall extends deep into the earth, create an atmosphere of claustrophobia. Each subsequent chapter weaves this theme at the level of city, society, and individual, to drive home the oppressiveness of the Wall. This approach convinces me at least, to side with Mithila, that the Wall must be breached—not to solve the mystery about what lies beyond, but simply, because it exists. It is an unforgettable story and a fantastic addition to contemporary Indian (English) SFF.