14 May 2006

Two short novels

Our rickety bedside table had been slumping under the weight of unread desi heavyweights. We put two short novels that we got from our professor-friend on one of the piles. The rightward tilt of the table was corrected at once. It seems the ocean of stories read our minds even before we wrote down our wishes. Out of the political ether emerge these two works which, although they don't have the avoirdupois of a Seth ramble or a Chandra tome, are certainly not lightweight, not by any means.

Is there a better modus of experience of India than by train? In Shama Futehally's Reaching Bombay Central (2002, Viking), a railway journey becomes a metaphor of nothing short of India's destiny. While Ayesha Jamal, the protagonist, hurtles towards Bombay in a heightening atmosphere of anxiety and fear, passengers appear, leave, and reappear, as if on stage. Various stories are played out as if in India's conscience. There's Ranjit, a journalist, on his way to interview riot survivors in Bombay to see if aid has reached them after all this time and if politicians have lived up to their promise. There's Charanjitji, an ex-MP and a Yadav, smarting over the insult of being denied an AC car. Jeyashree is a squirrelly little expostulant budding over with tart remarks. Finally, there's the unnamed bundi-clad ex-haute bureaucrat. He is willing to help the ex-MP get his AC berth but his motive, it soon appears, is to put him under an obligation for a high post after retirement. Unskeining in flashbacks in the middle of these conversations is Ayesha's story. She has been sent on a journey to ask the help of her uncle Zahid Mahood, a police inspector, for her huband who's been suspended unfairly on a vague, politically-motivated charge and is to be brought before a commission of enquiry. The train and, by extension, the nation hurtle towards darkness until the end when the sun breaks out suddenly with the news of the defeat of the Sangha.

Historiography is the site of conflict for contesting narratives in Githa Hariharan's intelligent In Times of Siege. The troubles begin when Shiv, a professor of history at Kasturba Gandhi Central University (IGNU is clearly meant), sends in a module for a correspondence course on Indian history. Basava, also called Basavanna (Elder Brother), a treasurer in the 12fth-century city of Kalayana which lay 300 kilometres north of the Vijaynagar kingdom, was a poet, a visionary, and a social reformer. Shiv's module includes an account of Basava's circle of mystics and revolutionaries who were veershaivas (warriors of Shiva) and came from all castes, even "untouchables." In this utopia in Kalayana, a marriage was arranged between a Brahmin bride-to-be and the son of a cobbler. Kalayana's priests and traditionalists objected to this mingling of castes that had resulted from Basava's egalitarian experiment. King Bijjala was persuaded to condemn the marriage. The pair was tied to a horse and dragged through through the streets. The remains were decapitated. Despite Basava's pleas for non-violence, his followers retaliated. The city burned and Basava left. The king was assassinated and Basava died mysteriously.

Arya, the departmental fundamentalist, sets up the reaction while Shiv, the professor, is away on leave tending to his ward who has broken her leg. Itihas Suraksha Manch (History Protection Society), a Hindu fundamentalist organization modelled on the RSS, objects to Shiv's account for highlighting caste divisions and for reducing Basava's role from mystic to social reformer, a view which they claimed was probably derived from "foreign" Muslim sufi traditions. The university authorities are mealymouthed in their genuflection to the objections of Arya and his goons. Shiv's injured ward Meena is an activist whose ideological commitment to fighting "fundoos" draws up the battle lines as she mobilizes the left. Conflicts mount and, to complicate matters, Shiv is drawn to Meena.

These slight novels achieve what the heavies don't. It's a parlous state of nationhood when fanatics, thugs and murderers start issuing diktats in the name of religion and morality. It's downright frightening whether they come to power in India, in Afghanistan or south of our border. These are cautionary tales for all our literary citizenry to struggle to keep religion and politics clearly separated. A peacable world requires our vigilance against theocracies. We have to be vigilant about who controls the project of writing the story of civilizations, of rewriting history. Futehally who died in 2004 and Hariharan were friends and have delivered us these truths in fictional form with pith, bite and elegance.

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