On reading news reports about riots, one often wonders if there is something more than what meets the eye by way of explaining how and why the violence began.

Mumbai-based playwright and journalist Annie Zaidi, who recently won the prestigious Nine Dots Prize for her essay Bread, Cement, Cactus , dissects the ferment leading up to mob violence in her latest novel Prelude to a Riot. She analyses the dynamics and undercurrents of a society caught in strife and division.

Set in an unnamed place in a peaceful town in South India, Zaidi’s book traces the beginnings of a riot through a series of soliloquies by various characters.


Prelude to a Riot; Annie Zaidi; Aleph Book Company; Fiction; ₹499


At one end of the scale, there is Dada, a third-generation Muslim estate owner, a liberal who chooses to ignore the signs of the impending trouble brewing on the basis of faith and identity. His belief in the Almighty and the goodness of human beings blinds him.

At the other extreme are Appa, an estate owner, and his son Vinny, who resent Muslims, accusing them of being outsiders with no right to be in the town despite living in it for several decades.

Marvelling at how quickly the Muslim workers grasped new skills, Appa sarcastically calls them multitalented: “They can do everything. Road work, construction, rice fields, plantation work. Bomb work. They pick it up fast.”

Ironically, this very attribute draws the father-son duo to hire them to work on their estate. Vinny says, “Before they came, I had to pay at least one hundred local workers in the planting season. Now these sixty people do the same work in the same time. And I pay less. Why should I pay more?”

Keeping the narrative taut, each soliloquy is crisp, without being boring or overbearing, providing glimpses into the lives of the characters and portraying collective apprehensions. The monologues propel the story forward and make us aware of several sub-plots.

Abu, Dada’s grandson, a university student, is intrigued by how polarised the communities in the town are.

He wonders, for instance, why people take account of the number of mosques in town or why they do not seek permission from building owners when pasting posters on their walls. Despite being close to friends who are Hindus, he becomes apprehensive about the safety of his grandfather and sister Fareeda, owing to the religious polarisation.

Abu realises, “An outsider is the person who can be kicked out easily. The one who cannot buy guns in the name of his tradition and caste. One who is not a minister in any government. Outsiders are ‘out’ of a charmed circle.” Abu’s warnings about the impending danger are not heeded to by Dada and Fareeda. He is annoyed by their denial of the divisions in the town and refusal to leave it. Abu’s Hindu counterpart is Devaki, a non-conformist. Daring to marry Saju, who belongs to a different caste, she defies her father Appa and brother Vinny.

Boldly questioning her community’s loyalty to the colonial rulers in the past, she ponders why the prosperity of others is constantly discussed and envied.

Being morally upright, she can’t bear the exploitation of migrant labour, and defends their right to earn an honest living.

Refusing to believe that they were a threat to law and order, she upbraids her father and brother for conveniently hiring migrant labour at half the government’s stipulated wage.

Making a case for interpreting past and present events in the light of reason is Garuda, the local high school’s social science teacher. Acerbic and unsparing in his words, he is dismissed for drinking during school hours.

Yet, this inebriated man displays better judgement than those in their senses. He goes beyond the syllabus for his students, sparking in them a spirit of enquiry. In one section, he shows how wars over territory are justified in the name of god or free trade

Zaidi takes a jibe at the practice of hero-worshipping of actors who cash in on their popularity to become politicians.

For instance, Mommad, a labourer who steals money to see his favourite actor on screen fight injustice and evil, is disappointed when his idol joins politics and keeps mum when other leaders spew venom. Dispirited, Mommad wanders off, unable to stop himself from rattling off his hero’s dialogues.

Zaidi is remarkable in her ability to gradually build the tempo in the narrative, compelling the reader to follow the dramatis personae. Her skill lies in etching the attributes of each character with finesse, without ever forcing the reader to be judgemental.

With fake news and rumours ruling the roost thanks to social media, Zaidi’s book serves as a warning against rushing to judge others based on hearsay. Despite all the indications of an impending violence, the story ends on a note of hope with Dada hearing the azaan from a new mosque and then the birdsong.

S Ravi writes on books, arts, culture and entertainment