The structure of Ira Singh’s new book, Pilgrimage, is hard to pin down. Although the story proceeds in roughly anti-chronological order, the events it focuses on don’t lend themselves to a clean cause-and-effect framing. Instead, one needs to process them in terms of the impact that they have on the narrator’s inner self, and thence on the reader.
It starts off with the narrator, Monica, travelling in an ambulance towards the big city, racing against time to get her father to a hospital. Their way is marred by hordes of religious pilgrims, the so-called kanwariyas, who have set up camp on the roadside on their way from the Ganga to their temples, carrying Ganga water on the way. Monica and the ambulance driver plead with the pilgrims to let the ambulance through, finally winning when Monica threatens to take a video of the thuggish leaders and share it on WhatsApp. This is, in effect, a clash between modern-day rationality and old-time religious zealotry.
The story now moves back to when Monica was a Psychology student in college, working on her degree thesis on drug addiction. There’s a family nearby that has had all its members addicted to hard drugs at some point, and is now struggling to stay rehabilitated. She goes over to meet them—three siblings, two of them married, living together but apart from their divorced parents. Over time she bonds with these folks, falling the hardest for Ajay, the unmarried young man who can’t seem to keep down a job. Sharing marijuana smokes with him, she embarks on a long affair while neglecting almost everything else in her life. It takes a tragic event to shake her out of the stupor and back into ‘normal’ life.
After these encounters with religious frenzy and with drug addiction, the book goes back to her discovery of homosexuality. Monica is barely a teenager when she comes to realise the true nature of the clandestine nature of the afternoon meetings of two boys on her home’s terrace. As in her later brush with drug addiction, Monica accepts the fact of this sexual orientation and uses it to examine her own feelings towards the topic.
Considering that in her previous encounters with the unknown/other—the addict and the homosexual, where she empathised and expanded her worldview—what is the cause for the harsh dismissal of the religious frenzy that she sees on her later ambulance trip? Is it because of the chance of loss of her father? Or is it because the unbridgeable distance between her own worldview and that of the pilgrims? Although Singh gives no clear answers, these possible answers speak about the growing alienation between the ‘modern’, ‘liberal’, elite of India and the older, more traditional ways here.
The acceptance of the ‘other’ stops at religion, it appears, on both sides. Where will it lead to? No one knows.A thought-provoking, compact volume, Pilgrimage is a welcome addition to the growing library of fiction about a New India in the throes of a rebirth, upending millions of lives as it grows.