In The Horizon, Gautam Bhatia has written a masterful sequel to his first novel, The Wall, that brings together a close examination of the politics of radical change with the songs and stories that can sustain but sometimes also limit the imagination of what is possible in life. Directly following the climactic ending of The Wall (spoilers below), The Horizon not only shows us what the young Tarafian rebel Mithila found on the other side of the vast wall encircling the city of Sumer but also dramatizes the sweeping revolution that convulses Sumer itself.
Mithila is a delightful character, a rebellious and fearless twenty-something woman who is never satisfied with any of the answers the powers that be have tried to enforce about the nature of Sumer. She challenges everyone and everything and never does what people expect and want her to do. Only through her stubborn refusal to take any of the paths to safety offered to her is she able to finally understand how to be free of the strictures of the 2500 year-old civilization of Sumer.
Governed by a Council and a Priesthood, supported by force of arms, life within Sumer depends on the order established by mythical Builders. These superhuman beings not only bounded the circular city within a vast black wall which no one, except Mithila, had ever breached but also left behind a set of myths and stories and knowledge guarded by a group of scientists known as the Select. They claim to protect the people from knowledge which destroyed earlier cycles of human civilization and intervene in Sumer’s affairs only in extreme circumstances to guard the circle of time.
One of their tenets is that people die to live again, summarized in the word apoptosis. That refers in biology to the structured process of cell death by which cell components are broken down and used again. What it really means for the future of Sumer only becomes clear as the story moves toward its climax.
From the outset, Mithila’s breaching the Wall means things will never be the same, but exactly how will they change for the highly structured society of Sumer? No one, least of all Mithila and her friends, know what the new life will be like, but it’s clear that the discontent that has been simmering is going to come to a boil. The poor of Sumer and the farmers have voiced their grievances in the past. The question now is will they join forces to bring about a revolution and will it be led by Mithila?
After making a dramatic entrance back into Sumer, people looking for a leader start calling her Worldfarer, but her stubbornly contrarian nature makes her resist becoming the figurehead of a social movement. Nevertheless, circumstances move her in that direction. Her father, Ananta, after all, led an earlier revolt twenty-seven years before under the name Savarian. Her sister, Minakshi, becomes head or Matriarch of the Shoortan Priesthood, and her lover, Rama, formerly a progressive member of the Council, is thrust into the leadership role of President. The people she was once closest too become the powerful figures of the old institutions that are starting to fail and put more and more pressure on her.
Mithila, while being pushed into an active role, is still trying to interpret her experiences on the other side of the Wall. There she encountered the sea and the vastness of the horizon of the world. She found herself lacking words for the experiences and sensations that overwhelmed her at first. Her search for language to capture these new sights and smells is recorded in her diary:
“Language is incomplete without a word for the flavour of earth after rain. I remember Sumer. I remember the scent of woodlands after a shower. But this is something else. It rises from the ground. It fills you up. It dissolves the borders between the world and you. It runs like the blood in your veins.”The Horizon, Harper Collins India paperback edition, p 86
This search for language to capture the experience of the unbounded world parallels Mithila’s search for the deepest meaning of the songs and legends that helped shape her experience of Sumer. She finds another city, Gumfraude, in some ways the mirror image of Sumer, built into the earth rather than surrounded by a high wall, but breaking out of the circular pattern and long since abandoned and fallen into ruin. This city turns out to be connected to Sumer by underground passages, but its existence and the strange intersections of different realities she finds there only gradually yield their larger meaning.
While the climactic moment of The Wall (Mithila’s escape past the Wall) was clear from the outset, how that could possibly happen was always the question. The end point of The Horizon is much more mysterious. Bhatia keeps the narrative moving through many twists that had me guessing how things might turn out, and he achieves a powerful ending full of surprises.
Mithila is central to most of the action but almost as an anti-chosen one. Bhatia, a constitutional scholar in India, focuses a lot on how the the discordant notes of social unrest can become an anthem of revolution but reveals all the stops and starts and failures along the way. And the revolution turns out not to be the decisive change everyone was looking for but only another manifestation of the impending break in everyone’s lives.
Mithila is caught up in all this but what sets her apart for me is her fearlessness in jumping straight into the darkness of the future without a hint of where the light might come from to make a new life possible.
The Horizon is a remarkable novel that pulls together ideas about language, poetry, social change, law and some mind-bending intersections of time from different worlds. The characters define themselves through their actions and dialogue rather than backstory, and sometimes I had trouble distinguishing individuals in the large supporting cast. But the basic drive of the story works beautifully through both The Wall and The Horizon.
I heard Bhatia say in an interview that he was done with this story, but there is plenty to pick up at the end of The Horizon if he should change his mind. Whether or not he does, I look forward to whatever new fiction he writes. I urge you to get a copy of The Horizon, which is published so far only by Harper Collins India. You can get the paperback through Amazon and other booksellers, though it might take a little longer than usual for it to arrive. It’s worth waiting for.