I enjoyed this engaging and thoughtful family drama, which uses the perspectives of various generations to discuss the politics of India. I found the story propulsive and compelling, and it signals an exciting new author.
I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This is a hard-hitting novel about Shabby's coming of age in India, including witnessing a traumatic event. The main character is very well written and I was really rooting for him with some other interesting characters in the story too.
A very impressive debut novel.
The aftermath of the Mumbai riots in 1992 told through the eyes of a young innocent boy Shubhankar and an horrific incident which has a lifelong effect on him. As time moves on and friends move away on a different path to his own he begins to question the path he is on and reflects on the past that has shaped his life till now.
Thanks to Netgalley the author and publishers for an Arc of this book
I have watched numerous Indian movies, felt the turmoils of politics, cultural and caste issues and many coming-of-age plot lines but this is the first time I read that in the form of a book.
It felt nostalgic to read about a 10 year old from the 90s, which is the generation of my cousins, witness something unusual which completely changes his course of life. The move to a bigger city, finding new friends and life goals has been repeated a few times in movies, but never felt so emotional as finding it through the beautiful words.
I stumbled upon this book and I really wanted to read and feel the emotions, thoughts and the process of coming to a realisation in life, and the book definitely did not disappoint.
After Shubhankar witnesses a traumatic event his life is changed forever. He is haunted by what he has seen and his family's silence. This then affects Shubhankar's life choices as he comes of age. I loved the way this book drew you in, to care about the characters and bring so much feeling for them whilst also exploring middle class India and modern political events. A joy to read.
Although it was interesting reading about contemporary India and all the religious and social divides that have plagued the country in recent years, I wasn't hugely impressed by this book. The writing was pretty average, and the story wasn't compelling enough to make up for that – plus I found a lot of the scene transitions to be really clunky. But, to be fair, I read this immediately after reading Zadie Smith so it kind of didn't stand a chance. PS just learned that this was an Observer best debut and tbh, I really don't get why. Still, thanks to Penguin for letting me read it!
I found this a superb debut. Having lived in Mumbai/Bombay during the troubles that formed the background to the story, I was impressed with how Bhattacharya portrayed them. As an adult, I found some of the things I saw and experienced during that time disturbing. I can only imagine that the same events witnessed by a child would indeed influence his life, his relationships and his development as a person. Shabhankar, the main character, his family, colleagues and friends were beautifully drawn, compelling characters. The sometimes oppressive atmosphere of the time (especially Bombay, 1992) was really well written, as were Shabby’s ups and downs of growing up and adulthood.
I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading more by Bhattacharya as he progresses through his writing career.
Set amidst the political unrest and mob violence of 90s India, One Small Voice is one young man's coming-of-age tale. Witnessing a horrific act of violence at the age of ten steers the course of Shubhankar Trivedi's (Shabby) life. Moving back and forth from time, we uncover that life, the expectations put upon Shabby's shoulders, and the dreams he has for himself. A powerful debut which felt a bit slow at times but held my attention throughout.
An impressive debut. A coming of age story in modern India.
Loved this bit
‘I miss simpler times . . .’
He nods, sips his coffee. He wants to say to Papa, Isn’t this what you wanted, some money and small luxuries, a car and fancy coffee, and when you couldn’t get it yourself, didn’t you want this for your sons? But he knows now that this is how human beings are. All we want is to move up the ladder, but once we’ve gone up, we look back and yearn, those markers of a past time now quaint, retro.
In One Small Voice by Santanu Bhattacharya we are introduced to Shubhankar “Shabby” Trivedi, a young child who witnesses an act of violence against a young Muslim tailor at a wedding which changes the course of his life forever. From there, we follow Shabby into adulthood as he tries to move on from the memories of that day.
One Small Voice is a story about a young child who looks to his parents to make sense of the violence he is exposed to, to explain it, the why and the how. And as he grows up we watch as he is exposed more and more to the realities of his country’s history and conflict. While always continuing to ask questions.
One Small Voice is a story about the weight of family expectations, brotherhood, the value of art and music. It’s a slow burn sort of story. A hopeful story. And you are invited to follow along on this one man and his family’s journey. And by the end it was one I was desperately sad to leave behind.
A novel that will stay with me, it’s no surprise that it’s been declared An Observer Best Debut Novel for 2023.
I thought this was stunning - beautifully written, vibrant and affecting. Fantastic debut and one I will recommend to as many people as possible.
One Small Voice skilfully interweaves the coming-of-age story of Shubhankar Trivedi (Shabby) with a backdrop of communal violence which touches his life in significant ways.
Shabby grows up in Lucknow in a family clinging precariously to middle-class and Brahmin status (his choice of nickname is in part a way to distance himself from a name that proclaims his background). His parents push hard to give Shabby and his brother the one thing they can – an education.
As a child Shabby is aware of other cultures – he attends a Christian school, there are Muslims in the town. But as violence against Muslims in Gujarat fills the news, ten-year-old Shabby witnesses a horrific act by a mob and this trauma changes him, and his perceptions of those around him. Unable to tell his parents what he has seen, or comprehend the complicity of people they know and respect, he takes the guilt and blame upon himself.
Later, as an adult in Mumbai, he is caught up in another terrible act of violence and experiences life-changing injuries. One Small Voice moves between two timelines. One is the aftermath of the injury. The other is his life from childhood up to that point, with the truth about what happened unfolding through the narrative.
While One Small Voice is driven by the theme of communal violence it is much more than an issues novel. It’s also a beautifully written exploration of family life, and of Shabby’s struggle to reconcile his parents’ expectations with a rapidly changing culture.
Shabby’s adult life in Mumbai is apparently much freer than his parents’. He works for an American company, he lives with friends, he mixes with people from different backgrounds. However, their apparent freedom and tolerance is still constrained by the darkening political landscape.
What I like most about One Small Voice is that it’s a powerful story about one man’s trauma and recovery, but it’s also a vivid depiction of his world. From the pressure on Shabby and his peers to succeed, and the way they cope – or fail to – to the small details of their lives, it’s a novel that stays with you.
I received a copy of One Small Voice from the publisher via NetGalley.
"This is what happens when people can't tell their own stories. Other people tell them on their behalf, spinning what they wished for them, wished upon them. And they, the voiceless, lie silent, witnessing their lives being reincarnated on other people's tongues."
From his childhood in Lucknow, to working in Mumbai, the story follows the life of Shubhankar Tridevi - later called Shabby. From getting into an 'English Medium' school, to the competitiveness and social pressure of getting into good colleges, moving away from home and trying to navigate through life - Sanatanu Bhattacharya's writing is vivid. He knows how to tell a story. However, it is the aftermath of the Babri Masjid riots when young Shubhankar witnesses a horrific incident that traumatises and haunts him for life.
Through One Small Voice, Bhattacharya has not only told a coming-of-age story, but has also highlighted India's religious, cultural and political sectarianism.
“But he knows now that this is how human beings are. All we want is to move up the ladder, but once we’ve gone up, we look back and yearn, those markers of a past time now quaint, retro..“
This book is a really well thought out coming of age story based in India. It is full of so much. The whole story is centred around the political and religious violence and unrest in India. The beginning of the book wasn’t as engaging as I found the switch between timelines a little disjointed and the editing maybe a little jolty in the way it moved with their not actually being much time between the two timelines. I think this improved a lot once Shubhankar went to university and the second half was really engaging. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time in India (and not the touristy side) the imagery worked well for me however I do think it would maybe hard to visualise if you hadn’t had that exposure as there’s not THAT much by way of description. Overall an engaging and heartbreaking read with really lovable characters.
Santanu Bhattacharya's debut novel may be called 'One Small Voice' but this new author's voice is anything but small, and hopefully is one we'll hear more from. The story is set in India, spanning the 1990s through to the late 2010s, and the viewpoint character is Shubhankar (Shabby), a quiet, decent, ordinary boy/man from a middle class family in Lucknow. He is growing up in an India that is becoming wealthier and more technologically driven, but also more divided by different varieties of sectarian violence. Shabby is more aware of this than some after witnessing a horrific murder as a child, and then later in life becomes victim of a similar mob attack which leaves him permanently injured.
The reader will be struck by the sheer senselessness of the fighting and brutality. And no matter where in the world you live. don't allow yourself to think it could never happen in your own neighbourhood. History teaches us otherwise. This is a book that is relevant to everyone, wherever they live, and maybe more so than ever in our current times when groups of people seem increasingly polarised and angry with each other.
Shubhankar is a likeable character from very early on, but over the course of the book I felt like I really came to know and love him. He's a quiet man, happy to play second fiddle to his cheeky brother and later his charismatic friend Ganjeri. But his good qualities gradually shine through and I badly wanted him to succeed in life and be able to be happy. There are a host of likeable and interesting supporting characters also, including his irritating but loving family, and his two best friends in Mumbai who have a strong influence on his adult life.
The novel reminded me of those of Rohinton Mistry - which is a very high compliment. There's the same mixture of social commentary tied up in a genuinely compelling and meaningful story, with characters you can really care about. The novel has the same unflinching realism about human nature and how easily terrible things can happen - but overall it has a more positive and hopeful spin than Mistry's do (certainly I didn't feel depressed after reading it).
This story will clearly appeal particularly to readers with an interest in India, but it deserves a wider readership than that - it's a high quality story about people and life, that is well written, compelling and moving. I would recommend to all of those who enjoy general literary fiction.
Wonderful debut novel. Torn between family expectations and his own desires, Shabby lives with the consequences of the mob violence he witnessed in his childhood. Eye opening telling of India's contemporary history.
This book was featured in the 2023 version of the influential annual Observer Best Debut Novelist feature (past years have included Natasha Brown, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Douglas Stuart, Sally Rooney, Rebecca Watson, Yara Rodrigues Fowler, JR Thorp Bonnie Garmus, Gail Honeyman among many others).
It tells the story, over some twenty-five years (from the early 1980s to 2016), of Shubhankar Trivedi – who later picks the name Shabby when he starts at engineering college, picking a name that “gave away nothing – where he was from, his religion, caste, even gender”
Shubhankar though grows up in Lucknow (in Northern India) to a Hindu, Brahmin Caste family where he is the older of two sons. The youngest is nicknamed Chintoo, but Shubhankar has no family nickname as “you are the eldest son, and your name should carry the pride of the family” – so that the very choice of a nickname at college is a very deliberate attempt to distance himself from familial expectations.
The family despite their upper caste and respectable ancestry (his paternal grandfather a freedom fighter, his maternal grandfather an engineer) are decidedly striving middle-class - his father a foreman in a fertilizer factory. But Shubhankar’s parents (and Nani – his maternal grandmother and ever critical family matriarch) all determined for better for the two sons – particularly their eldest. The books starts with Shubhankar being prepared (succesfully) for an interview for a Catholic Primary school and later with him sitting (and failing) a series of examinations for prestigious engineering courses across the country. Later – in a period only briefly referred to by the book – he re-sits them at his own choice and, post engineering college, takes a job with an American software firm in Mumbai (again a deliberate decision to distance himself from his past) where we rejoin his life.
Shabby’s live though hinges around two key events.
The first event is as a young child in Lucknow in the 1990s in the riots and sectarian (particularly anti-Hindu) violence which followed the 1992 Ayodhya Mosque demolition and which reverberates through the book. There he witnesses a Muslim man, the assistant to a local Hindu tailor and whose name beginning with M he cannot remember, being burnt by a mob outside a marriage Shubhankar and his family are attending – an event which his family suspect he may have witnessed but around which a veil of silence is drawn. Shubhankar in turn decides to withdraw from his family – furious at their passive complicity in the attack. For the rest of his life in the novel, Shubhankar/Shabby is literally haunted by M. He is also driven to find ways first of all to trace M or his family (deliberately working in voluntary work that might bring him into contact with them). His burgeoning artistic (drawing and painting) talent revolves around images of flames and fire. And finally many of his life choices are driven by a conscious and sub-conscious desire to somehow atone for his inability to help prevent the attack: for example when he goes to Mumbai he offers to a Muslim student Ganjeri to rent a flat with him. Ganjeri (real name Syed Shah), Ganjeri’s girlfriend Shruti and Shabby then as a trio trying to find their identities.
The second event, is when he is working as an IT consultant in Mumbai and is involved in “the incident” which occurs in a series of anti-Northern immigrant riots there in early 2008. That incident is unexplained until very late in the book – however the whole book pivots around it, as it is written with two timelines – both of which proceed chronologically but in an alternating way (and both sets of chapters signposted with years of decades). One of these series is from his childhood up to and for a period after the incident, the second from some 4-5 years after it as he starts to finally come to terms both with the incident but also with his earlier trauma.
"But all that was before the . . . the incident.
Not any more. Now his body is broken, his mind a mush. He is in recovery, as the psychologist termed it. In one of their sessions, the psychologist asked him to beware of microaggressions.
But nothing here is micro, he wanted to tell her. This whole country, this city, people screaming, horns honking, vendors hawking, passers-by shoving, dogs barking, coconuts breaking on the ground unannounced, every corner and every moment here is macro. Being wary of aggressions here means being wary of life itself."
The thematic development of the novel is interesting.
It starts on a very micro level with the life of Shubhankar and his family (which is a fairly classic if not almost cliched tale of Indian childhood).
It then develops, equally on a micro-level, through the life of Shabby and his friends as a twenty-something IT-working generation finding their way in the world including deciding on whether that way is in India or abroad – particularly America (which while perhaps a less cliched tale is one increasingly featured in novels).
But then, and particularly in the last quarter of the book takes a turn for the macro – with Shabby’s life becoming a way to explore modern India and with the election of the Nationalist Modi government in 2014 making sectarianism the law (literally) rather than an occasional exception. This is both:
By way of metaphor (the two events and their impact on Shabby standing in for the way in which sectarian and regional division – both historical and more recent - still scars the country. An earlier scene involving a human pyramid held together by a disparate crowd just when it was about to collapse forming a more hopeful counterpoint.
By way of the book’s text in the thoughts and spoken words of Shubhankar and others which increasingly challenge what they are seeing and examine the roles different generations can play in changing things.
This last part of the novel could I think easily be a little overdone – straying into the grandiose or sentimental – and I think some readers may think it is. However, for me it works because of the way in which we are first drawn into and invested in the story of Shubhankar/Shabby and the nuanced cast of characters around him each of whom seem drawn out as real people: from Nani who we and he only really get to know close to the end, to Dhwani – the survivor of two twins whose life intersects at intervals with Shabby, to Shruti and Ganjeri – the latter perhaps the only one whose character arc I found a little far fetched).
Overall I think this is an excellent debut.
One Small Voice
I came across this book almost accidentally whilst browsing NetGalley. Then, when I looked it up on Goodreads I discovered it has one of those annoying addenda to its title “An Observer best debut novel for 2023”. I say annoying, but in this case it added to my interest and I decided to request it.
My thanks to the publisher for approving my request and making and ARC available.
We read the story of Shubhankar. He will come to be known as Shabby as the story progresses. As a young child in India in 1992, Shubhankar witnesses a terrible act of violence which his family seems to ignore and which he consequently locks up within himself. This casts a shadow over his life from that point onwards.
Shubhankar’s story is overlaid on a backdrop of political upheaval across India with violence between Hindu and Muslim, the place of women in society and the challenges of the new generation all coming into play as the country goes through changes.
The book is structured as two interleaved narratives, one before and one after an “incident”, Shubhankar’s own life changing experience. This structure works well for the most part (although I am a huge fan of Emily St John Mandel and she does it better than most so it’s a high bar for this book to jump over).
Overall this is an excellent debut novel. It combines an individual story with a national context in an interesting structure. There are times when it feels like the book might tip into sentimentality, especially towards the end, but, even at almost 400 pages it doesn’t feel like it outstays it’s welcome.
"What matters in the history of time is not the story that dazzles today, but the one that sparkles with so much honesty it survives. Even if it's told by only one small voice."
What made this book for me is the vibrant narrative voice and that sense of emotional authenticity that we can see in the quotation above. I really connected with this style of writing from the warmth of the family in the opening scenes to the trauma that the narrator experiences which changes his view of the world without ever making him cynical.
There's something almost Dickensian in the way this navigates between the big politics of India and the smaller, though no less important, individual impact. And, like Dickens, this teeters on that line between emotion and sentimentality: in the end, it just stops short of the saccharine for me. It's perhaps a little neatly shaped but I'm going with my heart rather than my head with rating this one.
Set over a twenty five year time frame, this is the coming of age story of Shabby. It is also a brilliant telling of the rise of nationalism in India from the 90’s to more recent times. The book references the wider historical context of India and its Colonial past.
Early in the book Shabby experiences significant trauma when he witnesses a mob murder; the trauma is compounded when he understands that adults know about it but ignore/deny it. What he witnessed informs the whole book but we are aware from early on that there is more trauma in store for Shabby.
I waited to read this book on holiday as I knew much of it was set in Mumbai so I wanted to read it in the heat. I’m so pleased I did as I somehow felt even more immersed in Shabby’s story.
The themes of this book are BIG covering ritual, societal norms, how young people experience the world, discrimination, trauma, sexuality but the humanness of the characters is what shone through the most. Santanu Bhattacharya writes female characters so well, I loved Shabby’s Nani and her openness to her grandson later in the story, thank you for bringing some powerful women to life! I have been thinking of them long after finishing the book.
Finally the book renewed my belief in the power and absolute necessity of the arts, both in the writing of the book and within the story of Shabby and his art.
A five star recommendation that will stay with you.
Thanks to @Netgalley for the advance read