A Beautiful Lie is a tale of India before its partition in 1947. Bilal is a teenage boy whose father is dying of cancer, and devastated at seeing the India he loves crumble to pieces, friends torn over the question of religion and bloodshed. So Bilal decides to tell “a beautiful lie” to his father on the last days of his life, reverse the drama and tell his father that the conflict is over and India is one once more. Throughout the novel, Bilal struggles to contain the lie as it takes on a life of itself. All around him, his homeland is in dire straits, and he finds his friends abandoning him and his brother turning to religious extremism. What Bilal and the reader don’t realise until the end of the book, is that Bilal’s father knew the truth the whole time. In his final days, he didn’t care about the state of India, but just his love for his son, saying in a letter: “You are my India.” (ABL, p.274)
The novel raises the question of truth and the relative morality of lying; when is a lie permissible? The lie that Bilal tells is “a beautiful lie,” a lie that stems from love and not from a desire to deceive. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the lie that Bilal told was really for his bupuji or for himself. Bilal’s mother died when he was young, and we see in the novel a distinct absence of the feminine until the very end where his aunty takes custody of him. The death of his mother, which was put down to fate, that is “something beyond our control,” (ABL, p.50). But young Bilal is told that his mother’s death was caused by fate, leading him to believe that fate is an illness that can be fought, cured. And now in his adolescence, aware of the true meaning of fate, it seems that Bilal still wants to fight it, to fight what can’t be fought. Bilal wants a degree of control in his life. This is how he comforts himself. He is not only protecting his bapuji of the truth, but himself, since the partition means that he has to leave his home, his friends, and his life behind to begin a new life in the Muslim Nation of Pakistan. Bilal says to his estranged brother, the political extremist, “Don’t bother us with your ‘truth’. It’s ugly and we want no part of it.” (ABL, p192) Here, he seems to be picking and choosing different “truths” according to their beauty – ie., what he wants to happen vs what is actually happening. There are many different truths, and so long as you believe wholly in one, you can eliminate the other inconvenient truth. Ironically, this dichotomy of opposing truths mirrors what is happening in India, as it is torn up into two sides, forcing Bilal to choose one side or the other, whilst he sticks his fingers in his ears and pretends there is no choice at all.
Bilal as a character is complex and three-dimensional, wholly believable and with a psyche that will keep the reader guessing long after the final page of the book is turned. The key to understanding Bilal is to examine his family history. The loss of his mother, the imminent death of his father, and his missing brother leave Bilal unstable. Constantly experiencing stomach pains due to stress and shouldering the heavy burden of a lie, we see Bilal as a troubled boy, and as a boy quite alone in the world. He has friends and a wide social circle, but he is alone in his own head. Then one by one, his friends drop off, as we see Chota leave town and Manjeet breaking off their friendship because Bilal is a Muslim and he is a Sikh. We trace all this back to his family. In a particularly revealing scene at his mother’s burial under a giant banyan tree, which is a symbol for Bilal’s happier past, we see the earth crumbling beneath his feet in a rockfall. Faced with the ugly truth that his past is gone and the future is pressing, Bilal focuses instead upon long-gone memories of his family. He says:
That was my first memory of us as a family, although sometimes I wondered if it was actually what I remembered or what bapuji had told me and I had claimed it as something I remembered. As I walked back towards the cliff, I decided that I didn’t care which it was, I was just glad I did. (ABL, p. 119)
Here he is rejecting truth for beauty. But this is the root of all his lies and symbolic of Bilal’s character. He always chooses beauty and happiness over misery and truth, from his first ever memory to his present day life. It is ironic then that in his life, Bilal becomes a lawyer, “a defender of the truth.” (ABL, p.283)
What A Beautiful Lie does brilliantly is represent both the unity of Bilal with his friends, his own united India in microcosm, and the blood-thirsty mob tearing India into two, although it is curiously silent on the issue of the role that Britain played in the partition plan. Bilal is fiercely loyal of his friends, Chota the Hindu, Manjeet the Sikh, and Saleem, his fellow Muslim. Bilal’s attitude comes from his bupaji, who says, “We’ll always have our differences but our similarities will keep us together. India will never be broken, never split.” (ABL, p.16-17) We see India united in the form of the three holies, a Reverend, Pandit, and Imam, but “despite their differences, they were fast friends.” (ABL, p70-71) We see many of the characters transcending their differences, united by their similarities, and loyal through and through.
This is where the real India lies; just as bapuji says of Bilal, “You are my India,” we come to recognise that India is not a fixed space, a territory of dead land, but alive in the spirit of the people who keep the flame burning, who refuse to see differences as a crime, but choose love for their friends and family over religious differences.