4 Stars (out of 4)
*This Place | That Place will be released on June 14, 2022
The innovative format of Nandita Dinesh’s This Place | That Place, along with its timeless subject matter, make her debut novel an absolute must-read.
Dinesh’s background in theater and the study of protest movements informs how she constructs This Place | That Place. The novel is primarily a dialogue between two characters, organized to read almost like a screenplay. The conversations are supplemented with other documents, including excepts from a guidebook and a developmental materials for a curriculum, along with notes from the character reviewing the document. The inclusion of these materials reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.
The (sadly) evergreen subject of This Place | That Place is military occupation. Conversations between the two main characters — a man from the occupied country and a woman from the occupying country — take place inside his house during the first few days of a surprise military curfew.
In order to make her novel as universal as possible, Dinesh doesn’t assign names to either the countries or the characters. The book could be about Ukraine and Russia or Palestine and Israel, etc. Yet the setting is clearly inspired by Kashmir (“This Place”) in 2019, when India (“That Place”) revoked Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and cut off access to the outside world. Fans of Hindi films will appreciate the characters’ discussion of a “Shakespeare adaptation” set in the region, clearly referring to director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet.
Conversations between the main couple tend to focus on limits: practical limits on the movements of people under curfew; the limits of her ability to understand his experience of living under occupation; limits on the ability of individuals and groups on either side to change the terms of the occupation. The pair deliberately avoid addressing the romantic tension between them in order to delay the most frustrating discussion of all: the limits the occupation places on their possible future as a couple.
The woman from “That Place” is in “This Place” to pilot a (secret) course to deprogram occupying soldiers, similar to tactics used to deprogram cult members. The goal is to get soldiers to question their orders, rather than follow them blindly and to view the local citizens as people, not enemies. It’s one of an array of interesting resistance tactics discussed in the book. Editorial notes attached to the woman’s curriculum give further insights into the characters.
Perhaps of most interest to those of us lucky enough to live outside of a military occupation is the man’s document on how to endure prolonged periods of curfew. Most of the man’s solutions involve taking control of time — the only thing one has in abundance when locked inside one’s house — or at least the perception of it.
As the book explains, despite an outsider’s best efforts to empathize, it’s almost impossible to truly understand what it’s like to be trapped with no access — physical or virtual — to the outside world for days or months. Dinesh does a wonderful job guiding the reader to empathize with the situation right up until the point when the reader realizes that it can’t really be done without personal experience. It’s a an effective call to action.
Dinesh uses her wealth of experience to craft a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Rather, This Place | That Place invites further exploration and provides a new lens through which to see the world. As one character states: “One of the things that people without the experience of curfew don’t understand, is how easy it is to keep entire nations subjugated when its citizens cannot access information.” That’s a warning all of us should take to heart, no matter where we live.
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