Did a version of this for the May issue of The Hindu Literary Review
A few pages into Ajaz Ashraf’s The Hour Before Dawn I started feeling mildly panicky. Rasheed Halim, a New Delhi-based journalist and the book’s principal protagonist, had just stumbled across the possibility that the cancer he’d fought and seemingly defeated could return. And his rising panic at this discovery was infectious.
Rasheed’s struggle to deal with the trauma of a possible relapse is one of the stories at the core of this rather hefty book. Another major narrative is the mysterious appearance every morning of ‘Secret History’ — a series of posters on the walls of residential colonies in New Delhi — across November 1992. This ‘Secret History’, which portrays Muslims as invaders intent on plundering the country and wiping out all traces of Hinduism, claims it presents the ‘real’ history of India. ‘Secret History’ addresses Hindus, who it declares are “the only true people of this holy land” and exhorts them to rise and destroy the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992.
Several other narrative threads run through The Hour Before Dawn. These include Rasheed’s blossoming relationship with Uma, who helps run a helpline for people with psychological ailments; efforts by Rasheed and a bunch of others to unmask and stop ‘Secret History’s’ anonymous author; and the story of Wasim Khan, who is Rasheed’s neighbour, a devout Muslim with a catholic worldview and an Islamic scholar on a quest for “the nectar of the Invisible.”
Weaving all these strands into an engaging tale is a challenge that Ashraf tackles with limited success, as the narrative plods on to an ending where not all is revealed.
Some sections are extremely evocative, especially the bits that deal with Rasheed grappling with the idea of a relapse and all that it means, including the possibility of imminent death. Rasheed withdraws into a little bubble of dread and doom. And Ashraf captures this sense of darkness so well that it almost becomes a living being, one that sucks out every shred of positivity from the world around. Sample this passage that captures the pain, fear and confusion that envelop Rasheed: “Like drops of water falling from a leaking faucet, the thought of dying dripped into his consciousness. His was the pain of a man overwhelmed by the cruel certainty of his fate.”
I was also struck by how well Ashraf has crafted the various episodes of ‘Secret History’, with their catchy, over-the-top portrayal of events from India’s past. Of course, you soon realise they are exaggerated and fictionalised accounts; something Ashraf confirms in the afterword. Yet, there’s something beguiling about them, a bit like those e-mail forwards you get and promptly forward to people you’re not too fond of!
At the same time, the writing is often uneven and stilted, with convoluted sentences like this one: “They felt the emptiness similar to what is experienced on missing out on reading the newspaper in the morning, a regimen adhered to for years.”
The book is also afflicted by a jarring ‘article-itis' and ‘preposition-itis’ epidemic; with articles and prepositions being used in the wrong places and missing from where they’re needed.
I also found some of the sub-plots and details that crowd the book tangential, at best, to the overall narrative and quite exhausting. They add bulk to the book, but little heft to the plot.
Which left me feeling that some incisive editing, which cut away the flab that weighs down this book and shaped a tauter tale, could have saved The Hour Before Dawn. That it didn’t happen is a pity. For the book presents a slice of recent Indian social history, the effects of which are still being felt. Equally important, it is a work of fiction, a historical thriller that also throws culture, religion and medicine into the mix. At another level though, it nudges us to reflect on what terms such as ‘history’, ‘trust’, ‘friendship’, ‘religion’, ‘liberal’, ‘fear’, ‘love’ and ‘life’ itself really mean.