“Hate Is a Subtle and Evil Virus, as Dangerous as Corona”: Author Annie Zaidi

Best-selling author Annie Zaidi on inspiration, personal choices, and her prescient novel about bigotry and radicalisation in today’s India

By Shweta Bhandral

A peaceful countenance, a crisp cotton sari and a pleasant smile as she greets friends and guests at her book-reading session. It wasn’t the first time I was meeting Annie Zaidi but the girl I had known as a passionate poet and creative writer had never aspired to make a career of it.

Yet, here she was, experimenting with both fiction and non-fiction writing with seven books and other works to her credit.

Born in Allahabad and raised mostly in Rajasthan, Annie studied journalism at XIC, Mumbai, and joined Mid-Day newspaper soon after. “Through my job, I learnt how to write, research and gather information. Journalism helped turn me into a writer, and especially the particular kind of writer I am,” she says.

In 2008, Annie took up a part-time job that would help pay her bills and give her more time in hand. After completing her first manuscript, she quit the job entirely and lived on her savings for a year. By the end, she was financially broke but much more confident about her writing abilities.

“It is not easy. But it is worth doing if you want to do it,” she shares. “And sometimes, it is also useful to do it so you can discover how badly you want to write. The year I quit, I had decided that life was too short not to do the things I wanted to. That my art and craft matter more than job security. And that if I failed, then so be it.”

She goes on, “If you choose to do this, you must be prepared to be your own person. You surrender certain social circles and shrug off peer opinion. You live on a very tight budget. You don’t spend the way your friends or family members do. You may not be able to afford to have kids or send them to decent schools. You have to accept that these are choices, and nobody owes you anything.”

Her first book Known Turf was a collection of essays based on her experiences while working for Frontline as a reporter. The book was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2010. Since then, besides books, she has written plays in Hindi and English, and experimented with writing and directing short films.

Her second book Love Stories #1 to 14 and third book Gulab were romances of a different kind. “I observe politics or the economy or the personal and often deeply lonely lives around me,” she explains. “The love stories were written separately over two years. Whenever I wanted to take a break from non-fiction, I would write a story. But I did impose a strict discipline upon myself, writing six to eight hours a day.”

Annie’s latest work Prelude to a Riot, written two years ago and published in late 2019, was born from observing how bigotry works in a society that does not see itself as bigoted or radicalised but is, in fact, quietly marching towards violence.

She says, “Hate is a subtle and evil virus, every bit as dangerous as Corona. I wrote the novel to capture that malignancy and its inevitable outcome. Unfortunately, by the time it was published, people were saying it is ‘timely’ because more violence unleashed.”

The 41-year-old believes in speaking freely, especially in a democratic republic founded on the premise of universal rights. She says, “Anybody who has the ability, the language and the tools should protect our fundamental rights. It is through silence that oppression works. But the few who are still speaking up for the rights of the many sadly get labelled.”

In 2018, Annie won The Hindu Playwright Award for her play Untitled 1. In 2019 came the prestigious Nine Dots Prize for her upcoming memoir Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation.

While writing a personal narrative, Annie has tried to examine the wider causes for the feeling of dislocation or displacement, impoverishment and discrimination, which can lead to migration or a feeling of homelessness.

First published in eShe’s May 2020 issue

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