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Narratives of lived experience – writing the Northeast

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THE first time that I travelled to the Northeast was in search of creative writers for an issue of The Book Review, a New Delhi based journal that I worked for at the time. And as I read and researched, and interviewed writers in Guwahati and Shillong and Kohima, I heard stories that astounded me for here was a region about which I knew very little and had read even less; I had not one friend through all my university years who belonged to the Northeast and I was totally ignorant of what their lives were like, of their history. My first visit changed all that and since then I have made countless visits to the region and many friends – friendships that sustain and strengthen me today. (These relationships have also helped build an enviable Northeast list for Zubaan where I now work and we represent some of the most talented writers from the Northeast – but that is another story!)

Northeast India does not get much attention in the English language ‘national’ press and nor do the region’s issues figure on the national policy agenda. For most Indians it is far removed from national consciousness, difficult to access, travel to, understand, and to empathize with. But as I travelled in these states and learned the little known histories of peoples from the so called frontiers, it became important to me to engage with these histories, with these ‘voices’ from the margins, to look at the writing pouring out from these ‘troubled frontiers’ and question how writers deal with the important question of representing the violence that surrounds them without falling into the trap of creating merely a pornography of violence.

Literature like other art forms shares a dialectical relationship with society and with history and geography. This is particularly true, I feel, in the case of the Northeast where recent histories have had such a major impact on the writing (and even more especially of women writers) that has emerged from the different states of the region. ‘Terror lore’, a term coined by poet Desmond Kharmawphlang to describe the stories and lore that emerge from regions and societies besieged by collective fear and insecurity, works very well in this instance. Through much of its post-colonial history, insurgencies and counter-insurgency operations have been part of the fabric of everyday life in Northeast India (and here I use the term ‘Northeast’, aware that it is largely meaningless and inappropriate, but as Sanjib Baruah points out: ‘People tend to use the English term even when speaking or writing in a local language’1 ). Militarization has become ‘a way of life’ in the region with ‘the deficits of democracy, development and peace best explained by Northeast India’s history as a frontier’2 and by the lack of attention by Indian policy-makers to a region that has been besieged by decades of armed conflicts ranging from demands for self-determination and greater autonomy to assertions of complete secession from India.

To say that the northeastern states are different from the rest of India in almost every way is to state the obvious, but it is important to recognize that this region is different from the rest of the country in a way that is inevitable in border areas, taking one back to arguments made by scholars and academics, writers and activists alike – that locating a region by placing oneself at a point central to oneself is an arrogant and potentially dangerous stance, which is what New Delhi has often been accused of doing. To the people of the Northeast their world is central to themselves; to ‘mainland India’ it is a borderland but nevertheless the pattern of political violence in Northeast India cannot be seen as temporary or aberrant.

There is a real lack of information in the mainstream media about this region and the only time you read or hear about it is when there is a bomb blast somewhere or a highway is blockaded and even then that news is usually relegated to inside pages in the national newspapers. Despite the fact that today there are many more young people from there in metros like Delhi, in colleges, or working (mostly in the service industry), and many well-known writers and academics whose presence is very visible in the many seminars and conferences that dot the city’s calendar, and the fact that in the last five years or so there has been a great deal of media coverage on the Northeast as well as articles on the ‘fresh, new, exciting’ creative writing from there – there are still areas of darkness. This is more than apparent when someone like Patricia Mukhim, well travelled journalist and editor of Shillong Times known for her frank views says, ‘For a person from the Northeast, the Indian identity is, and always has been, a paradox’ and each ‘encounter’ that the Northeasterner has with the ‘mainland’ Indian reveals how little the rest of India knows about its far flung periphery.

It is this lack of interest and empathy that has cemented the divide that exists between India and the Northeast. To me this region embodies all that is beautiful, and all that is slowly dying, a ritual way of life with traditional communities and structures that is crumbling away in the face of guns, insurgency, counter-insurgency, state and non-state violence. Analysts say war and conflict are devastating to social and cultural institutions because they impact society and individuals and every person who has survived conflict is in some way scarred by her/his experience. It takes people and society a long time to come to terms with what happened to them. Telling their stories is a form of political intervention, a way to open up a little known region and an alienated people.

Most of the communities from Northeast India can pride themselves for possessing a vibrant storytelling tradition, says Tilottoma Misra.3 People whose history and civilization had been pushed into the margins took up the task of recreating their past and reinventing tradition as part of the nationalist agenda of identity assertion. The dominant theme of the fiction, and much of the poetry coming out from the Northeast, is violence, because communities in these states have been besieged by years of insecurity and violence, death, kidnapping, rape and torture on a daily basis. Government apathy, corruption, poverty and unemployment are realities that confront local people caught in a crossfire between insurgents and security forces. Writers across the states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura are deeply concerned about the brutalization of their societies. Regions like the Northeast, which have seen violence for decades, present a complex political picture and even though it is almost impossible for an insider to attain the necessary distance to ‘report’ on the violence around him/her in an impartial manner, the writers from these states have been confronting these issues upfront.

Among the most significant novels in recent times to do this are by hugely successful and acclaimed women writers Rita Chaudhury and Arupa Patangia Kalita. Rita Chaudhury’s novels like Abirata Jatra, Ei Samay Sei Samoy, Byortho Mollar are largely autobiographical and based on the author’s experience as a student activist during the Assam movement looking back at those six years with a critical eye. Arupa Kalita’s writings focus primarily on the plight of common people faced with insurgency and military operations in Assam. Her novel Arunimar Swadesh deals with the issue of secret killings that took place in the late nineties when relatives of insurgents were targeted and many families were wiped out. Felanee published in 2003 is a subtle analysis of the impact of organized violence on a group of dispossessed, marginalized poor women who are survivors of horrific and repeated blood-letting. It is significant that this is the only novel that looks at the situation with a gendered lens and the women in the novel are representative of the multiculturalism present in Assamese society so much so that even the protagonist Felanee does not belong to any specific ethnic group. The novel seeks to make a strong statement about the need to represent the marginalized voices in a society, which is becoming increasingly masculinized because of the prolonged effects of militancy.

Presenting the ‘other’ side is Dhrubajyoti Bora’s trilogy on the insurgent movement. Kalantar Gadya, Artha and Tejor Endhar created ripples when they were published. His is a male world –the story of a group of young swept by youthful revolutionary zeal to transform the world. He presents the dreams, illusions and despair of a band of militants whose fall into violence and brutality changes them completely, making them unrecognizable.

This thread runs through the novels and short stories of some of the best-known writers from the region like Indira Raisom Goswami (Jatra), Arupa Patangia Kalita, Sebastian Zumvu (‘Son of the Soil’ about a young boy caught by the army for pretending to be an insurgent in order to extort money and ends up as a cripple), Keisham Priyokumar (‘The Bomb’), Bimabati Thiyam Ongbi (‘He’s Still Alive’) and many others. Temsula Ao, one of the foremost women writers from the region, describes what happened in Nagaland in the 1960s and 1970s in her short story collection, These Hills Called Home: Stories From a War Zone.4 This is one of the strongest collections in recent times to document the violent history of the state. There are stories that tell of the burning of villages, of wanton destruction of crops and livelihood, of the changes wrought on a peace loving, proud people who turn into informers and middle men to survive in hostile terrain, the loss of what she refers to as ‘the Naga way of life’. It is something that has left people disabled, taken them away from their roots and imposed upon them alien values and cultures in the name of development and progress, the fallouts of which are many. ‘The sudden displacement of the young from a placid existence in rural habitats to a world of conflict and confusion in urban settlements is also a fallout of recent Naga history.’5 Numerous others like Manoj Goswami, Imran Hussain, Atulnanda Goswami, Manorama Das Medhi, Yumlembam Ibomcha, Tayenjam Bijoykumar, to name a few, have all dealt with similar themes in terrifying detail. Fear, reprisals, rape of innocents, death and torture haunt the landscape of these writers – stories of common people confronted and caught up in uncommon circumstances – the violence of ‘normal times’.

A number of younger writers have continued in this tradition, looking at the endemic violence of the times and grappling with the issues that confront them daily. They address political issues through their writing and interrogate issues such as identity, ethnicity and the violence that has ravaged their home states. They have grown up in the shadow of the gun and despite the generational change visible in their writing, their desire to analyze the common people’s reaction to insurgency is as strong as ever.

A case in point is the young author Aruni Kashyap, who says that during the harrowing Assam agitation of the 1980s, as a generation of young intellectuals took up arms alongside the ULFA, school students like Uddipana Goswami (now a published poet and short story writer) wrote fiery poems supporting the organization. For them it became important to understand what happened, to decipher why so many educated thinking young men took up guns against the Indian state.

It is interesting to note how so many of them (the insurgents) are now writing novels and memoirs (like Samudra Gogoi for example who wrote A Former ULFA Member’s Memoirs) and trying to understand the baffling complexities of the region. Similarly, Mithinga Daimary’s collection of poems, Melodies and Guns, generated immense interest and controversy when it was released at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006 and well-known academic, writer and Assamese littérateur Indira Goswami who edited the volume commented that books by Daimary and other militants ‘give me a sense of the frustration that still burns in the hearts of a whole generation.’

Though the tradition of prose narrative in Manipur can be traced back to an ancient text, Numit Kappa, written probably in the tenth century AD, modern fiction in Manipur emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. The events of the Second World War changed the psyche of Manipuri writers who started to concentrate on their changing realities and social milieu. Post the 1970s Manipuri writing started to reflect the spiral of political violence that engulfed their state and take as their themes the destruction of the traditional way of life and the wanton violation of human rights by militants and security forces alike. Describing the rape of his land Robin S. Ngangom writes, ‘I’m the pain of slashed roots/and the last rain is already here./I’ll leave the cracked fields of my land/and its weeping pastures of daybreak./Let wolves tear our beloved hills.’ And further, ‘Let rats gnaw at the supine map/of what was once my native land.’6 

With its strong tradition of theatre and dramatic performances going back generations and spanning cities and villages, it is not surprising that even villages have active writers groups and many of these have published books on armed conflict and its impact on the life of rural communities. Among the most significant writings in recent times are the poems of peace activist Irom Sharmila, The Fragrance of Peace. Irom Sharmila’s ten year old hunger fast and her strong stand against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the might of the Indian state have ensured that her voice is heard across the country. It is a collection that has come out of her struggle for peace in the Northeast and she has become an icon symbolizing the struggles of the people. ‘Unbind me/from this chain of thorns/that bind me in this narrow room/for no fault of mine/a caged bird’, she says.

The Mizo insurgency spearheaded by the MNF took up arms against the Indian state and huge popular support with large numbers of the young joining the ranks of the MNF. The security forces sent in by the Indian government worked methodically: they burned large tracts of land, regrouped villages into new administrative units and generally did everything they could to curb the insurgency. Local people lived in this kind of limboland for twenty years with intangible fears and with violence and insecurity being the only constant in their lives. The terror they underwent gave voice to a whole new body of writing, largely about the pain of their daily lives. Cherrie L. Chhangre, poet and writer from Mizoram explains that ‘when the movement was in its peak in the ’60s and ’70s, the act of writing itself posed innumerable risks’7 and there was a sudden deafening silence when many documented records, diaries, journals and creative writing were burnt by the security forces or by the writers themselves for fear of reprisals. Much of what we have today has been handed down by word of mouth as there is reluctance to put down in writing the actual experience of that period by those who went through the years of terror.

Whereas earlier writers were engaged with stories of trauma and conflict, today they write of the overwhelming influence of the Church. In ‘What Poetry Means to Earnestina in Peril,’8 Mona Zote writes about the excessive influence and ‘interference’ of the Church and points to the definite desire among the younger group of writers and poets to go back to pre-insurgency days, to before Christianity made inroads into the region and to discover and explore their roots. This is something that is apparent in Mizo music and is now beginning to be felt in writings as well. ‘I like a land where babies/are ripped out of their graves, where the church/leads to practical results like illegitimate children and bad marriages/quite out of proportion to the current population, and your neighbour/is kidnapped by demons and the young wither without complaint/and pious women know the ecstasy of dance and peace is kept/by short men with a Bible and five big knuckles on their righteous hands./Religion has made drunks of us all. The old goat bleats./We are killing ourselves./I like an incestuous land.’9

The Khasi language has a rich oral tradition, but because of the absence of a script, written literature developed much later when the Welsh missionaries introduced the Roman script and gave the Khasi language a written form. From those early days we now find a sensitive blending of the oral and the written in the work of poets and writers like Desmond Kharmawphlang, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Esther Syiem, Bijoya Sawian and others. It is perhaps significant that all of them write in English. The reasons are many: they have been educated in English medium schools, since a number of Northeastern states have adopted English as their official language; they find it easier to communicate in English rather than their own ‘mother tongue’, given the small size of the linguistic group to which many of them belong – whatever the reason, it is a fact that some of the best writing from the region has been produced in acquired languages and of course the writers find themselves able to reach out to a much larger audience through a ‘dominant’ language like English.

Despite the fact that Meghalaya is one of the more peaceful states in the region, writers there too have been grappling with issues of identity, the mistrust of the ‘outsider’ (dkhar) and what Patricia Mukhim refers to as the insecurity of a people without a recorded history about their antecedents.10 This fear and mistrust of the plainsman, the outsider, is described in novels like Shadow Men by Bijoya Sawian where the murder of a dkhar throws up questions of belongingness – can ‘outsiders’, new settlers, ever become ‘insiders’? Much of the writing from the region is preoccupied with this conundrum.

A lot of the new literature has ‘sprung from the staccato cry of machine guns’ and reflects the changes that are sweeping across the landscape. As Easterine Iralu writes in two separate biographical pieces, curfews and gunfire were a part of her growing up years in Nagaland11 and every gunshot heard in the distance puts people within hearing on edge.12 Temsula Ao too sees conflict as a major trend in the writing from the Northeast, the others being identity and the idea of the nation. A lot of writers, especially younger ones, refer to immediate concerns and react to present situations. There is not much introspection which probably comes with maturity, she feels. Younger voices from Meghalaya and Nagaland are much more urban, cosmopolitan, English educated and westernized as compared to an earlier generation, Ao feels. ‘They have lost touch with their roots.’ The older poets and writers are moored in their tradition and culture, and she cities Khasi poet Esther Syiem’s Oral Scriptings where Esther uses a lot of characters from mythology and folk stories. In Khasi Folk Stories, Kympham Nongkynrih does the same and so does Mamang Dai in Legends of Pensam. Temsula too writes about her own people and uses their Ao Naga myths for her arresting collection, Songs of the Other Life.13

An interesting insight into diaspora writing by young writers living in Bangalore and Delhi was provided by Mitra Phukan, well-known Assamese writer, columnist and classical vocalist. She said that they write of a ‘remembered Assam’, about their memories of home, of life in joint families, of their reactions to what is happening in the beloved homeland. Younger writers are also looking at little-known histories of their own people, of lesser known tribes like the Bodos, the Tiwas. There is a ‘looking back’ at history to find answers to the troubling questions that face them today.14

Despite the literature reviewed above, life in the Northeast (as elsewhere) is not all bleak, tragic or violent. There is love and hope in the indomitable human spirit. In much of the writing there is the serenity and mysticism that is so much a part of the deep lush forests and valleys and the gushing rivers and mountain streams and their immense silences. Each writer from the region is closely rooted within his/her own culture, tradition and history and this is something that provides a depth and substance to their writing. But again, this may change as more and more writers from the region interface with the world outside, participate in cultural festivals, literary festivals and conferences which take them and, more importantly, their writing, beyond their state borders. How successful has this crossing of borders been vis-a-vis the Indian ‘mainland’? Has it fared better crossing borders within the region or do entrenched tribal and communal identities prevent this from happening? These are questions that need further thought and may also point the way to a future where literary expression driven by a deep concern and desire for peace and a love of the land may provide answers to the all important question of how the Northeast sees its future in relation to India and how the northeastern states may imagine themselves as a region.

Preeti Gill

 

Footnotes:

1. Sanjib Baruah in The Peripheral Centre: Voices From India’s Northeast, edited by Preeti Gill, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2010.

2. Ibid.

3. The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North East India edited by Tilottoma Misra, OUP, New Delhi, 2011.

4. Published by Zubaan-Penguin, New Delhi, 2006.

5. ‘Lest We Forget’, These Hill Called Home: Stories from a War Zone by Temsula Ao.

6. Robin S. Ngangom, ‘The First Rain’.

7. The Oxford Anthology of Writing from the North East edited by Tilottoma Misra, OUP, New Delhi, 2011.

8. Poem in Nine Degrees of Justice edited by Bishaka Dutta, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2011.

9. Ibid.

10. ‘Where the Sun Rises when Shadows Fall: The North East’, edited by Geeti Seen, Oxford University Press, 2006.

11. In ICORN International Cities of Refuge Network, Norway, Autumn 2006.

12. ‘Red is the Colour of Blood’, in The Peripheral Centre: Voices From India’s Northeast edited by Preeti Gill, op cit.

13. In conversation, 2010.

14. In conversation, 2010.

 

JUSTICE BEFORE RECONCILIATION: Negotiating a ‘New Normal’ in Post-riot Mumbai and Ahmedabad by Dipankar Gupta. Routledge, New Delhi, 2011.

FOR too many of us, the ethnic/communal riots/ carnage of Mumbai (1993) and Gujarat (2002) have receded into the past. If at all there is significant impatience, if not irritation, with those who continue to hark back to those dark days, a feeling that they have a vested interest in keeping alive old wounds and not let people/society get on with the tasks at hand. In part, this is to be expected. The immediate aftermath of violence draws in many actors – the state, voluntary organizations, activists and intellectuals – seeking both to understand the causes of violence as also address pressing issues of relief and rehabilitation. But, as society slowly limps back to ‘normal’, attention flags. In the absence of long term studies, we only inadequately understand what happens to those who faced the worst of violence, how they cope once the supports go away, what still lingers as unfinished, or to use Dipankar Gupta’s felicitous phrase, what goes into the making of the ‘new normal’.

Despite the voluminous literature on ethnic conflict and violence, a huge amount on the Partition as also the many riots subsequently, most people continue to buy into a primordialist view of Hindu-Muslim violence, as if the two communities exist into a continuous state of tension, needing only a spark to set things aflame. ‘That people live in impermanent, negotiated arrangements is true, but that does not mean that differences spill out into the streets on their own accord without a limpid political motive among a set of actors. Unfortunately, given the vast symbolic reserve of Partition and the continuous state of tension with Pakistan, it is relatively easy for committed political actors to paint members of the Muslim community as the "seditious outsiders" out to undermine the sovereignty of the nation state and thus "undeserving" of all the rights and privileges of citizens.’ Possibly this is why there is substantially less sympathy to demands of legal redress and justice for the victims.

Dipankar Gupta’s detailed study of both Mumbai and Ahmedabad, more the latter, should force a revision of the dominant view. Even more, it should help us understand that unless we urgently address the issue of justice to the victims, we not only undermine the possibilities of reconciliation but, worse, weaken the process of constructing a democratic republic of equal citizens. He challenges the simplistic understanding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, arguing correctly that there can be no forgiveness or reconciliation between victor and vanquished. We, at best, can hope for an uneasy peace, with those on the receiving end adjusting to the new power configurations but simultaneously harbouring resentments. For evolving a more enduring arrangement in a post-conflict situation, the state has to emerge, and be seen, as a genuine and neutral arbiter between the communities, and proactively help construct a new social compact. Finally, he argues, that this is a continuous process. ‘Democracy is a constant vigil, for once the triadic mode that is occupied by the Constitution fails to live up to its expectations then the only language left is the "cry". We then slip back into predemocratic negotiations till the triad painfully re-establishes itself, if at all, and perhaps never in the same form again.’

More than these general theoretical points, this study based on extensive interviews and field visits to both Mumbai and Ahmedabad, details the different phases of coping by the victims of the riots. As expected, the immediate demand is security, second shelter, then jobs. Schools and psychological rehabilitation come later, the last probably never quite accomplished (p. 1). What is fascinating is the different trajectory experienced in the two cities. Dipankar explains this by reference to the history and context of the two cities – the greater presence of Muslim elites in Mumbai, the previous history of trade unions, a ‘secular government’ and so on. Possibly this is also why we witnessed a much greater role of ‘faith based organizations’ in Ahmedabad, particularly in the provision of shelter. It also helps us understand the intensity with which the Muslim community of Ahmedabad seeks secular education and skills, and prefers Gujarati to Urdu, as it would enhance their employability. Equally, choosing Gujarati over Urdu signals their desire to assimilate with the larger group, and a conscious underplaying of markers of distinct identity. The better-off, predictably, chose English medium instruction. Equally, it is clear why, given the indifference, if not the hostility, of the state government to ‘reach out’ to the affected Muslims, there is an even greater need to focus on issues of legal redressal and justice.

What makes the book fascinating are the details about who comes forward to help, in what phases of the post-conflict period, and for what activity. Unlike the more common media-induced perception, the voluntary agencies and human rights activists were less involved in, and capable of, arranging shelter for those whose houses were destroyed or who were forced to move out for security. The key role here, particularly in Ahmedabad, was of faith-based Muslim organizations. For jobs, people had to rely mainly on themselves and their own contacts, with the exception of groups like SEWA. The secular groups, however, were crucial in hand-holding, carrying out surveys, helping people claim compensation, as also in assisting the process of legal redressal.

This should not be underplayed in a situation when all seemed lost, and the victims felt abandoned by both state and society. The distressing role of the state machinery – seeking to blame the victims, tardy and inadequate relief, hostility to long term rehabilitation, subverting the legal process, and so on – makes for depressing reading. If the situation of Mumbai post 1993 appears a tad better, it is only in part due to the presence of a ‘secular’ government; it is worth reiterating that the Congress-NCP regime in Maharashtra has tried its best to bury the Srikrishna Commission report and done nothing to stem the tendency towards a ghettoization of the Muslim community. Fortunately, Mumbai with a stronger Muslim elite and a history of trade union and civic activism, saw a more vigorous response by secular groups and individuals, both in helping victims get jobs and compensation as also pushing the government for corrective action.

Both for its details as also its courageous pointing out of the infirmities of our secular politics, a point made tellingly in his analysis of the creation of the Sikh problem and the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Dipankar Gupta’s book deserves a close read. In tracing how the Congress party deliberately misread the Anandpur Sahib resolution as a separatist document, propped up a rabid Bhindranwale to undermine the Akali Party, in part by accusing it of not upholding Sikh interests, and turned a blind eye to his use of terror, over time converting secular grievances about sharing of river waters and the fate of Chandigarh into a Hindu-Sikh conflict, he warns us of the danger of simplistically accepting the claims of secular parties. Of particular importance is his plea for investing greater substance into the notion of citizenship, of understanding the need for treating democracy as a continuous engagement and, above all, for ensuring the impartiality and efficacy of the law and justice machinery.

In a phase in which majoritarian tendencies and identity-based politics are on an upswing, we are likely to witness more rather than fewer conflicts. It might be useful to heed the many lessons and recommendations emerging from this study.

Harsh Sethi

 

BHARATIPURA by U.R. Ananthamurthy (translated by Susheela Punitha). Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010.

THERE is something strange about a society that sees events only in scams, sports, disasters but ignores the publication of a book. On 20 January 2011, U.R. Ananthamurthy, the distinguished novelist, released the second translation of his book Bharatipura. In Bharatipura, U.R. Ananthamurthy invents a fertile and fecund world which needs a new reading. To understand the book we must avoid three pitfalls.

The first is what one may call the temptation of sociology. There is an urge to treat the novel as real. One is tempted to read it alongside an M.N. Srinivas, where Bharatipura becomes the remembered city to Srinivas’ Rampura as The Remembered Village. It is a tempting possibility given Bharatipura’s thick descriptions of town life. Often a novel seems more real, more located, more vivid than the realist ethnographies of Indian anthropology. One can then posit equivalences and then read the novel as a profound study of caste, religion or ritual. Such a realism would do injustice to the imaginations and imaginaries of the book. Fiction can invoke the real but must transcend it.

There is the second temptation which sees the book as autobiographical. Bharatipura then becomes an extrapolation of Ananthamurthy’s life, a cocoon, a shell created by the author around himself. One is tempted to read the author into the book given its sensitivities to socialism, Gandhi, to Lohia in particular, or even its nostalgia for the England of Russell or Ingersol. Yet, this game of equivalences is futile because Bharatipura as a novel appears as an act of distancing, of fiction liberating itself creatively from autobiography.

The third crutch that the book pushes you towards is history. One is nudged to see it as a period piece, to make it captive to a particular time and place. Bharatipura is everywhere and nowhere. In a simplistic sense, it can be read as a narrative of the fate of Gandhian socialism in the age of Nehru. Sometimes, the author himself urges you in that direction while exploring the roots of his creativity. Yet Bharatipura is a fable, and as fable it transcends period and place. History cannot be a reflection except as a hall of mirrors.

The reader, pursuing the book in English realizes, by this time, that it is a demanding effort. Each of the above interpretations becomes a Penelope’s cloak to be quickly unravelled as one struggles towards the truth of the book. But in the beginning, truth, like Odysseus, seems to be perpetually in exile.

In a linear sense the plot of the novel is simple. It is about a landlord named Jagannatha who is obsessed with change. He lives in Bharatipura, a temple city, and is convinced that change will not come till the lowest castes enter the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. An act of desecration is seen as an act of revolution and this story is a chronicle of his efforts. Jagannatha is the change maker and Bharatipura can be labelled a novel about change. However, this I believe is a mediocre reading which reduces the novel to second rate book, a positivist reading of a fictional tract. We tend to read the Rorschach called Bharatipura in terms of the limits of our fantasies. It then becomes a ‘Don’t use me’ manual of change.

There are moments of frustration the reader undergoes wondering what the author as trickster is trying to say. One realizes it is a kaleidoscope of a book but its magic does not stem from the empiricism of its broken bangles. One needs to capture the prism, the magical sense that allows for a different kind of truth. The first hint comes when you realize that the story swims in a sea of language. The reader begins to realize not just its linguistic and literary innovation but the possibility that the book itself might be constructed linguistically.

In linguistics, no word or sound is an isolate. It is always part of a community, a web of connections. Every word, every sound, demands to be embedded in a matrix of affinities and alienations. Dictionary definitions do not capture the truth of the word. Dictionaries create officially endorsed equivalents. The meaning of the word lies in its various uses. In linguistics we call this the shifter. Meaning shifts as the word traverses contexts. A linear reading of the novel makes Jagannatha the hero of the book. But the real protagonist of the book or the actor of the novel is change and what makes the novel so polyphonic is the stunning variety of change it discusses. Bharatipura is one of the most profound meditations on change. It reminds me of a distinction the sociologist Karl Mannheim once made. He said when you mention the word ‘problem’, Americans will take out a tool kit; mention the same word to a European and he treats it like a riddle. Bharatipura is about everyday metaphysics of change. It is this profound reading of the nature of change that makes Bharatipura a classic, even if a somewhat flawed one.

Bharatipura is a story about Jagannatha and every chapter is about Jagannatha’s encounter with one person, with a particular point of view. In that sense Jagannatha becomes the shifter. Change and perspectives of change alter with every new context.

In resisting the triumphalism of change or the fundamentalizing of tradition, the idea of change acquires diversities of incarnations, avatars from the everyday to the exotic. By taking change as the site for meditation, the author produces a different kind of book which is indifferent, even almost hostile, to the easy reader used to the linear expectedness of melodrama or revolution. He virtually demands new reading habits. Suddenly change becomes polyphonic, replete with silences, tricksters embodying a spectrum of times, where confusion, ambiguity, boredom need to be confronted. The novel makes you embrace this new site where the formulaic and the facile or even the ideological look silly.

One thing becomes immediately obvious as the narrative proceeds. The book is neither modern nor postmodern. It evades modernity by defying the oppositions that modernity is captive to. The standard oppositions of secular versus religious, rational versus mystical, crisis versus everyday, casteist versus radical are discarded like sloughed off snake skin. The epistemologies of change built around transition from tradition to modernity, ascription to achievement break down. Modernity is the trage-comedy of the either/or where dualisms and polarities disregard the richness of and or both as options, the availability of hybrids and synergies, syncretism working a rich ancestry of confusions. In a Mannheimian sense, every time the modernist takes out the tool as hammer or spanner to fix or create change, the technical problem or the political manifesto changes into a riddle. Nor is the novel postmodern as it seeks to go beyond a deconstruction of change to a deeper truth about the ontology of change itself.

Bharatipura is only overtly a city. It is a labyrinth of perspectives, positions, dialogues that the change-maker confronts in enacting change. The standard epistemologies of social science break down. A theory of innovation or an intelligent man’s guide to socialism or even a Leninist What is to be Done? does not quite fit. Every opening in the labyrinth is not an exit but an entry into a self, replete with others. Handbooks do not work. Handbooks of change which encode politics as manifestos appear illiterate. The puzzle of change is much more complex. Modern change manuals are written by the likes of a Charles Lamb when what one needs is the complexity of Shakespeare. Change in that sense is not a summons to technique but an invocation to the diversity of metaphor. Every trope from irony to paradox, from rhetoric to silence, comes into play. The author suddenly appears uneasy with the facile logic of manifesto’s whether The Hind Swaraj or The Communist Manifesto.

I think the genius of the book lies in the flat land called Jagannatha. He is a middling character, almost mediocre in his emotions. His values seem skin deep, his emotions almost cosmetic. Even his lust seems to have the vitality of a hiccup. Yet Jagannatha is a seed that grows in power because of the humus of characters around him. In every chapter, he almost absorbs another point of view. His self grows as he discovers the richness of the other he wants to change. He is almost like a character in Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold. The latter acquires the characteristics of the person he meets. His wife knows who he has met from the way he suddenly limps or stutters. Jagannatha does not go as far, but he discovers in a reverse way another that is not him yet is connected to him. The beauty of the book lies also in showing that the West is not alien, but merely another dialect to be lived out.

The style of the book where Bharatipura becomes a sensorium of smells, touch, taste and memory is attractive. At a different level, one senses a Proustian sense of time, but that is undeveloped. The time of memory, nostalgia, loss, history, progress, reform and the stillness are collaged together. The novel ponders over the power of silence and the secret. There is the silence of those who have given up but keep on going, whose bodies signal or evoke lust, while they themselves feel nothing driven by inertia living in a vacuum of indifferences. There is the classic scene in the attic where Nagamani commits suicide ‘among coloured cucumbers tied to the rafters with plantain fibre and some clothes hanging to dry…’ Suddenly even the idea of change becomes a luxury, an act of conspicuous consumption in a society where everydayness repeats itself between eternity and infinity.

The reader realizes, as his breathing resonates with the very rhythm of the book, that there is something more cosmic here, that beyond socialism and Russell and Nehru is a cosmology of time unfolding as ritual, as the organicity of life, the cycles of birth and death. Suddenly revolution seems to be a temporary eruption, a seasonal act easily compostable in a society where change, time and language have been the humus of a civilization. The reformer realizes that he belongs to multiple times and contains mysteries even he is still to unravel. There is a God whose everydayness and eternity he cannot understand though the sacred grows around him, like a lush tropical environment.

The novel now seems a mimetic study of society as a collection of rituals and prohibitions. Now revolution is not the overthrow of class, or a battle for rights; it demands that absolute act of sacrilege which overthrows categories and transforms them into Humpty Dumpties never to be put together again. Or so Jagannatha thinks.

For Jagannatha the real taboo is the prohibition of Dalit entry into the temple. In a society which considers incest as everyday, this is the ultimate prohibition, that act of sacrilege that can bring change. However, what looked historical or political becomes mythical; what looked linear and strategic becomes slippery, caught in a butterfly effect of unlikely collisions. One realizes a myth of change is being enacted and that myth is playing around with history, politics and everydayness. Any one explanation is reductionist. The great manifestos and tracts from Marx and Gandhi to Russell and Ingersoll shrink to a kind of illiteracy or political lullabies before the compelling but disturbing power of this picture. There is a profusion of life and characters, an almost Borgesian bestiary of types which can only be listed but never classified. There is a feeling that a historical Raskolnikov might be another Dostoevskian idiot.

The reader realizes he is inside a labyrinth, groping within a myth. A myth is an unravelling of contradictions resolved often by sly slippages. In Bharatipura, revolution has to move between equation and prayer, technique and spell, the managerial and the ritual, the strategic and the ethical. The author as shaman shuffles the pack. He is almost saying that do not think you can choose because life might be choosing you. As a reformer, you might be betting on history but life itself might be placing its own wager on you. The play of the cosmic and the civilizational elaborated through ritual and symbol is the contrast between a cosmic wager and a tactical bet. The novel in its variety becomes a mimesis of what change means, not on how to make change. Modern man caught in the cusp of binaries looks a tragically simple creature. Now ethics might not be a binary choice but a narrative that lives out every aspect of a choice, at every level of time. Suddenly, the protagonist about to commit a sacrifice appears comic, an elliptical scapegoat, maybe even a sacrificial one. A Promethean act of heroism can be foiled by childlike irony. The philosophy of change eludes rational choice.

I think this is the beauty of the book where richness of the structure creates a different sense of sacred and secular. It is as if every major Nehruvian word minted in English or ideological socialism is made to undergo the indigeneity of time. The novelist is no longer writing a manifesto of change. He reluctantly realizes he is a trustee to a cosmos. Storytelling is the unravelling of that act in all its power and in all its flaws. Bharatipura is a site where the reformer and the novelist both grow up in the very flow of incompleteness we call time. Politics, sociology and history diminish before such a problematic. The power of the book lies in the recognition of this elusive truth.

Shiv Visvanathan

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