“There is a world to discover, isn’t there?”
Gautam Bhatia’s debut fictional novel is what I’d like to call a masterpiece in the making. A story of a walled city – Sumer – which knows nothing of the world beyond it and of curious minds who feel caged up inside. A story of revolution, of yearning, of smara.
The city of Sumer is divided into 15 mandalas (circles/rings) which is separated from the farmer’s land by a river Rasa which flows right through the middle. The society has a matriarchal structure and the people don’t seem to be evidently homophobic, which is a welcome change from the world we live in today. Despite these developments, like every society there are flaws in this one too. There’s a difference in the opportunities you have based on the mandala you live in, you can consider the mandala system similar to that of a class-system, where the first five mandalas are superior to the next ten.
There are various groups/clans within the city with different ideals, the Shoortans who preach their incendiary doctrines, the Select who rise to oppose them, the Coterie who teach a new creed, the Young Tarafians who call for bringing down the wall and lastly the Hedonists who simply cause general chaos in the city because they have nothing more adventurous to do.
The focus of the book is mainly on the Young Tarafians and their leader Mithila. Her determination to breach the wall is inspiring while her will to sacrifice everything for what she believes in lights a fire inside you which might’ve been dimmed over the years of adulthood. The Shoortans and the council of Elders will infuriate you enough throughout the book to keep that fire raging.
The Wall speaks of various issues surrounding a society like class divide, power struggle, freedom of speech and expression, population and even the question way too many people seem to ask these days, “Who is a citizen?” My favourite chapter in the book was when the all the members of various groups gather together to try and ban the young Tarafians. The speeches given, the points made, the questions asked… it is most captivating.
But if I were to give you five reasons as to why you should read this book, it is because:
- The book is well-paced and the story structure is as such that while dropping enough hints of what may be yet to come, also keeps you wondering and hence you continue to keep reading on.
- If you love beautiful personifications used for nature, you’ll definitely love this book.
- Are you a sucker for MCs who will give everything they have to stand by what they believe in? Yes? Get ready to meet Mithila and her friends!
- If you’re looking for a SFF that isn’t centred on a patriarchal Caucasian culture with a straight lead, then this one fits the bill
- Lastly, The Wall is capable of stirring up a storm of emotions, especially towards the end and while it’s a duology and while you may have a lot of questions, the author does a brilliant job of not leaving you at a cliff hanger which will make you feel angry.
Gautam Bhatia has done brilliantly in bringing us an SFF in the form of Sumer and makes sure that he encapsulate just enough aspects of Hindu mythology and Indian culture.
I rate this book 4.5 out of 5 bookmarks, knocking off 0.5 because of the disconnect I felt in between chapters on rare occasions and also because I believe the cover doesn’t do justice to what a masterpiece this story is. I loved this book for how thrilling it was. I have not felt that way after reading a book in a very long time and will definitely recommend that you give it a chance on your TBRs.
I’d also like to thank Harper Collins India for this beautiful copy of the book and congratulate the author on his fictional debut! Gautam Bhatia very kindly agreed to an interview so keep scrolling to get to know more about the book and what’s coming next!
Gautam Bhatia is a science fiction writer, reviewer, and an editor of the award-winning Strange Horizons magazine. His love for science fiction fantasy started when his parents gifted him Golden Age short stories when he was ten, The Hobbit when he was eleven and Foundation when he was twelve.
- While reading I found a lot of similarities to various other stories like the Heartstone reminded me of the Arkenstone from The Hobbit, the tale of Samati and Garuda reminded me Garuda from Hindu mythology and Sumer reminded me of the Sumer civilization of Mesopotamia. So, I’d like to begin by asking you a cliché question, what were your inspirations in creating this city and this story?
There were many, many inspirations that bleed into the story and the world-building in The Wall. The story of Garuda and Samati, is, as you said, drawn from myth – it’s the story of Jatayu and his elder brother Sampati, which I’ve always found to be much more poignant thaan its Western counterpart, the story of Icarus. Sumer is actually drawn from Meru – the mountain – and the circular design of the City is based on the importance of circles in cross-cultural myth, but also, specificlly, on the image of seven circular seas that surround the Meru mountain. The principal character, Mithila, of course, comes from “earth” – so that’s another addition to the cosmology.
The songs in The Wall have real-life counterparts. Blue, I dream you, Blue – the song that Mithila sings to Rama – is based on the radical Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s Verde Que Te Quiero Verde, which I’d recommend to everyone – it’s on YouTube. The form and metre-schemes of the Wall songs is – as you probably recognised – inspired by Tolkien.
Some of the genre fiction that has inspired The Wall includes Ursula Le Guin’s legendary novel, The Dispossessed: the political conflict at the heart of Sumerian society draws a lot from how Le Guin recognised and articulated the possibilities of radical alternatives in her novel. There’s also Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, where a planet with six suns has “nightfall” only once every two thousand five hundred years – so generations go by without anyone seeing the stars. More contemporary influences include Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate novels.
- Could you tell our readers a little bit about what speculative fiction is and also share any book recommendations from this genre?
Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for a genre that includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, and everything in between, that lacks a definition. It ranges from “hard” science fiction (say, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novels) to “social” science fiction (Charlie Jane Ander’s The City in the Middle of the Night, Becky Chambers’ work), to “social” fantasy (Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant) to high or epic fantasy (R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War series or Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun).
Because of the range and diversity of the genre, it’s hard to pick out recommendations – different facets of SFF appeal to different people. I’d say that if you’re a new reader who wants to be introduced to the imaginative possibilities of the genre, Ursula Le Guin is the best starting point – The Dispossessed for science fiction and Earthsea for fantasy. If you’ve read the popular bestsellers and are looking for something new and original, I’d say Seth Dickinson’s Traitor Baru Cormorant for fantasy, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit for science fiction.
- The initial chapter highlighted unhappy Rahi farmers who meet President Hansa, did the Select come up with a solution to make the harvests better?
The Select are the scientists of Sumer, but they can’t control the weather or the yield of the soil. One of the central themes of The Wall is, indeed, what happens when you’re in a closed system where the conditions are just right to survive – but allow you nothing more.
- What more can you share with us about the voice in the dark?
You will hear more from the Voice in the Dark in Book 2, so I’ll keep mum right now. ☺ I will say that the inspiration for the Voice in the Dark sections comes from Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, where a central plot device is a murder, and you have chapters that are written from the perspective of the (anonymous) murderer, in first person. It is deliciously horrific!
- One of my most favourite chapter’s in the book was The Great Debate, do you feel your background as lawyer really helped to add to that chapter? Which chapter and character were your favorite? What did you have the most fun writing about?
Thank you, it was the chapter I had most fun writing. But no – the Great Debate is actually nothing like how an actual trial would take place, anywhere (except perhaps in ancient Greece!). That chapter was all about dialogue, pace – but most importantly – making sure that not only the main character, but also her opponents, had good arguments to place before the readers. I didn’t want the novel’s antagonists to become caricatures or cartoon villains – I think real life is much more messy, and like in real life, I wanted to write a book where the reader does root for someone, but also knows that that isn’t the only story on offer.
Knowledge of law did help, of course, in figuring out the political structure of Sumer, and how social hierarchies and equalities – such as those involving queer relationships – would be coded into law.
My favorite character – I really like all my characters, but my favorite has to be the City of Sumer – I did my best to breathe life into it, to turn it into a character, and I designed it with a lot of love!
My favourite writing parts were where I wrote about smara, the yearning, and Mithila’s attempts to imagine a horizon. I’ve always been fascinated by how language shapes and limits our world and our imagination, and how we try and break free from the shackles that language imposes on our imaginations. I loved going through that with my main character.
- Throughout the book, you chose to address issues like population, power struggle, freedom of speech and expression, class divide, etc. How did you decide on these particular issues to highlight?
These flowed naturally from the society itself. A world within a Wall would throw up its own set of hierarchies and oppressions – and it was basically a case of world-building – figuring out what would motivate and drive people in such a society, what they would be in conflict about, but also – and I think this is equally important – what prejudices might not exist. Sumer, for example, is – or at least, I tried to the best of my ability to imagine – a non-patriarchal society.
- Could you give us a hint of what to expect in the sequel? How difficult has it been for you to address the doubts of the uncertainty of a dream in the next book?
Haha, not to give anything away – but what I can say is that you will see a lot of some of the more marginal characters in Book 1. They’re going to come into their own. You’ll be hearing from Mithila, of course. And I can tell you that – since this is a duology – the questions at the end of Book 1 will be answered in Book 2.
It’s not been that hard, because I had a clear idea of the ending all along. I originally wanted this to be a single book, but the material just got out of hand, and I divided it in the most logical way.
- In your opinion, is time a blessing or a curse?
It’s a blessing when you’re trying to forget. It’s a curse when you’re asked to wait. ☺
- Lastly, to end the interview on a fun note, did you have a playlist or a particular song you listened to which helped in your writing process?
My favourite playlist is the ambient noise in a café. This book was finished before Covid struck, and a lot of it was written in Café Tesu and Café Turtle in Delhi, and in the Blackwell’s Café in Oxford.
Book 2 has been written in the silence of my room. I don’t listen to songs during writing, but I do listen to them in between writing spurts, where they often reflect what I’m writing at that time. Some of the recurring songs – and this may give some clues to Book 2, hehe – have been Verde Que Te Quiero Verde, Joan Baez’s Here’s To You, Nicola and Bart, the evergreen Windmills of Your Mind, Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving, Cairokee’s Al Midan, Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar, and the title sequence of the His Dark Materials TV series.