Earlier this year, Guatam Bhatia reached out to us to review his debut novel The Wall. After reading his bio, and the synopsis of his book, it was easy to say yes. However, 2021 was as much of a beast as 2020, and that promise was harder to keep than I had planned. Fortunately, the siren’s call of this book cut through the noise, and its song dashed me upon the rocks at just the right moment. The Wall is an epic story about one woman’s desire to break free from the limits of her society, in the hopes that it would inspire all to dream of a brighter future.
Mithila can’t look at it without feeling the need to attack it. It’s there everyday, it’s been there for centuries, and most people just accept it. The Shoortans praise it through their religion, making it their savior. Nothing gets under it, over it, or through it. There seems to be enough to eat, as long as people follow the rules and stick to their place in society. Change is rare, for change is risk, and risk could mean death and damnation. The Wall is Sumer, and Sumer is the wall, but Mithila wants to change that, she needs to change it. For how can there be a future, if there is no horizon?
I had a mixed experience with The Wall. The first half of the novel felt like nothing special. It felt like a storm of information, setting up the world Bhatia has created. The characters felt whole, but because the book was centered on a single person this wasn’t initially clear to me. And Mithila, the main character…I just didn’t jive with her for a large chunk of the book. I couldn’t tell if I was bored by the book or bored and reading the book – my mood tainting the experience. Eventually, I realized that what I wanted was deeper insight into the characters, and what Bhatia was giving me was the depth of his society. I wanted to see the Wall as the characters did, I wanted to see it represented within each of their minds, and how it related to them specifically as a character. Instead, Bhatia showed me the Wall and its ever present nature. Its unscalable height and its oppressive weight. The people who choose to defend it and those who try to imagine a horizon, a world without end because all they ever knew was the Wall.
And then it clicked. The first half fell into a sharper relief as all the events started to gain clarity. The characters were just people, some of whom did not accept the Wall, but felt powerless against it. And one, a revolutionary who felt powerful because of it. The Wall drove Mithila, it consumed her existence. Nothing else had value to her as long as the Wall’s boundaries lay unbroken and oppressively tranquil. She presses harder and harder, slowly regaining the support of her demoralized friends. The authorities that exist within Bhatia’s world take notice, some make fun, while those who revere the Wall recognize her as a threat. The specter of the old revolutionaries who vowed war on the Wall begins to haunt the streets of Sumer. Yet the Wall remains and Mithila can’t help but challenge it, fight it, and dream of breaking through it.
While the story is fairly straightforward, Bhatia furnishes it cleverly. He provides a map of Sumer at the beginning, but delicately describes the shape of the city throughout the book. I could feel myself walking its curved roads, surrounded by the buildings that make up each ring. Its various sectors are broken up based on class and occupation, intermingling but clearly segregated. The society is ossified, and has been for centuries. The mysteries and the legends of the Wall are everywhere, perpetuated by the quasi-military and Wall revering Shoortans. The color blue has become a status symbol, worn only by those who are worthy; the plants that create the dye are heavily guarded and kept scarce. The Wall itself is described incredibly, and minimally. It is not something that has a shape, and oddly it barely seems to have a presence while always there. Instead, Bhatia describes it in negativity, in a way only the reader can truly understand. It is not what the Wall is, but what it isn’t.
Bhatia succeeds at making Sumer a living place, etching out the lives of the people who populate it, and defining the tensions between the various factions that rely on each other as they each yearn for their own future. From my very little knowledge of India, and following a lot of recent news from it, The Wall exhibits a very Indian feel to it. The names are one thing, but Bhatia digs into the construction of Sumer with its ringed sectors, the specific class interests, and the strength and solidarity of the farmers in a way that feels drawn from that history. Bhatia doesn’t seem to lean on it either, building from it and giving it life inside his Wall. Every aspect of life in Sumer flourishes because of the Wall, bolstering it with the same reasons it should be torn down.
It’s easy to get lost in our own little lives, how the structures, physical and cultural, that pervade our lives mean something very specific to us, without recognizing what they mean to others. How they cloud collective horizons, and break up our ability to see the world before us, the world that is coming. The Wall is a very deliberate book about breaking down those barriers that cage us, and I need Bhatia’s story. It’s not subtle about portraying the need to challenge those structures, and the attitudes it might take. But Bhatia is subtle about the contours that surround that driving narrative, and that’s what makes The Wall so special. It was the perfect antidote to the repetitive gloom I had been feeling at the time I read it and pushed me to be better. You won’t get intricate individual characters, but Bhatia not only gives you a society that needs change, but the impetus to begin it’s transformation.
Rating: The Wall 7.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by Gautam Bhatia in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.