30 April 2008

Myths Come of Age

The Age of Shiva
By Manil Suri
Pages 453
Rs 495

‘Every time I touch you, every time I kiss you, every time I offer my body.’

With this prayer-like faux-erotic invocation Suri opens The Age of Shiva, a sexy, sensual, well-thought out novel by the India-born, US-based professor of mathematics, the second of a trilogy he is writing based on the Hindu Trinity Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva. Not an opening of a lovemaking scene, rather it is a sampler of the exploration into a gamut of complex familial relationships contained in the myth of Shiva, Parvati, and their two sons Ganesh and Kartik, refracted through contemporary lives.

The novel tells the story of a woman’s tortuous journey to independence. And since the very act of writing a trilogy on the Trinity speaks of a soaring ambition, Suri does not restrict himself to mythology. Instead he wants to check out the possibilities of presenting India as an unbroken continuum from the mythological to the modern. To this end the protagonist Meera also becomes a representation of India, and in her striving is paralleled India’s own struggle as a decade-old independent nation to achieve a semblance of sovereignty as it did in the post-Emergency decades of Maruti cars with economic liberalisation just around the corner.

Meera Sawhney, daughter of a Daryaganj-based family with an uneducated mother and a father who is a manipulator, agent-provocateur, and an armchair political dilettante and poseur, tells her own story in first person. She is a curious younger sister who falls for her elder sister Roopa’s dulcet-toned boyfriend Dev Arora who sings S.K. Sehgal songs in an intercollegiate singing competition at Delhi University. Soon she is forced into an early marriage with Dev when rumours imperil family honour. Meera goes to live in Dev’s joint family at their Nizamuddin railway quarters where Dev’s father is the station master.

From here on its a case of circumstances taking over Meera’s life. She forced into an abortion by her father who does not want to see her tamely settling down into domesticity. He buys off Dev with a passage and place to live in Bombay where Dev could try fulfilling his long-cherished dream of becoming a playback singer. Thus began Meera’s relatively freer life in Bombay, a city who symbolic importance as a commercial capital of India way from the planned-economy freaks in the political capital of India becomes one of the many political air socks Suri hangs to reinforce the sense of direction of Meera’s life and against which her reactive choices are made.

The politics of the novel is maladroitly woven in. Yet it serves as air socks at the airport, sets the larger context of Meera’s life. Meera’s father is one of the biggest air sock Suri uses. He is the symbol of patriarchy, he is the symbol of popular politics that chooses and disposes and reinstates leaders like Indira Gandhi with their different phases of disdain to adulation to outright animus to reverence again. He is one of the most convincing characters in the book. Then there is Arya, Dev’s elder brother who had always eyed Meera lasciviously and it would seem in full view of his wife and other family members. Dev later becomes a right wing leader of a organisation modelled on the RSS. Together with her father, Arya serves as the liberal Nehruvian liberalism and the right wing ideology India flirted with, and spurned.

Though the act of Suri, a man, writing from inside a woman’s mind might be regarded as a tour de force, Meera remains a patchily imagined character. True, her irrational exuberance, her passivity and reactiveness, motherhood, not to mention her internal monologue is one of the most attractive parts of the novel. Yet she seems to act far beyond her experience, her education, or even her limited worldview allow. For instance her search for independence and her desire to shut her father’s influence out of her life is not very convincing. It seems she has a place to go back to, a person or a plan to fall back on. Perhaps she betrays the fact that her creator is an expatriate with an option to opt out of unsavoury circumstances.

The first book of the trilogy, The Death of Vishnu, was critically acclaimed and popular, translated in more than a dozen of languages. In it a man named ‘Vishnu’ dying on the stairs of a Bombay apartment full of tenants quarrelling over shared kitchen’s shelf space set the scene for a comedic, satiric look at the mores and manners of India’s middle and the low class. However, being his first attempt at it, Suri could not mix the myth smoothly into the narrative. The final result was a bit lumpy and not always easy to swallow.

The Age of Shiva benefits from that experience and is consequently one of its achievements is the deep burying of the myth of Shiva into its layered narrative. The myth guiding the action of the novel, create rich resonance. The more you know about Shiva and his family the more pleasure one derives from reading The Age of Shiva. This makes it a genuine reworking of an Indian myth for modern purposes.

The Reds Are Coming, No Seriously!

Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country
By Sudeep Chakravarti
Pages 352
Rs 395

Published in the Mar-Apr 2008 number of 'M', a New Delhi-based men's magazine.

India is a fractured country, yet there has emerged one even larger crack that seems to question its basic idea -- a jagged line down its length, cutting the country almost into half. Once a narrow patch of refuge, nation-within-nation, the Red Corridor has now grown to encompass 165 districts (out of the total 602) giving sanctuary to the armies of the dispossessed and the brutalised who are trying to force the state to preside over redistribution of land. Their methodology -- modelled on Naxalbari’s original intent or Mao Tse-Tung’s equally cynical and bloody-minded ideology -- is based on extreme violence.

Just last month, more than 250 naxalites, the violent militia of the Maoist Co-ordination Centre of India (MCCI) attacked their umpteenth police station. Armed with guns, machetes, and bows and arrows, they killed 18 people and looted arms. Those in the know sat up and took notice, one of the aims of these high-risk-high-gain attacks, of the location of the strike. No longer satisfied pillaging police posts in the boondocks, the naxals had dared to take on a state target just a few kilometres from the state capital Bhubneshwar, Orissa.

The naxals, Chakravarti finds out in his fine, brave book, have not just internalised Mao’s words that ‘a revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay,[...] it is necessary to create terror for a while in every rural area or otherwise it would be impossible to suppress the activities of the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside,’ in fact the naxals have been punctual. They are bang on time meeting their sales-figures-type targets as they go about ‘liberating’ zone after zone. Subverting administration after administration to milk it of its benefits, often the gravy trains sustaining the whole entrenched venal complex of babu-neta.

The trouble with naxalism or maoism is that after the early victory over it in Naxalbari, a village in Darjeeling district, in 1967 through brutal state action (read ‘drag them out and shoot them’) against its surprisingly elite Bhadralok leadership and the assumed suppression of the ‘land to the tiller’ cry, the Indian state remained in denial of its existence, even as naxalism’s mutant, local strains have continued to break out ever since. Only since 2004 did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally admit that naxalism is the greatest threat to Indian security.

In this timely, searching, insightful book Chakravarti succeeds amply to ‘put faces and thought to statistics, obfuscation and denial.’ Travelling distances and metaphorically covering much territory from the making of a revolutionary to whether the naxals will succeed in their stated goal of power through violence. Beginning his travels in the mineral rich Chattisgarh, readers are introduced to an amoral landscape.

Amoral, not because of the absence of moral compass but because of the plethora of such compasses with each agency -- the state, the NGOs, the international development agencies, the state security agencies, the army (the vicious Naga Division) , and the often state-sponsored counterrevolutionary group s, the Salwa Judum (the Greyhounds in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa) -- each with their own moral compass. A jungle of moral subjectivism, a fraught environment, a conflict awaiting a denouement that cannot be changed or averted.

Making gentle forays or passing through, a host of other places dormant, simmering, or explosive with naxal violence, Chakravarti collates an assortment of opinion, conjecture, and obiter dicta on the naxal movement. He visits old time naxals from the Naxalbari the ground zero of the naxal movement, finds relative calm. The atmosphere of Chakravarti’s meetings with other Bengalis, mostly the original naxals and their kith and kin, in the region is marked by bonhomie. Chakrvarti drops his edge too. Interviewing his father-in-law, an laosed Red hothead who spuriously plays up to fresh media attention saying, ‘I would do it all over again.’ ‘Why don’t you?’ the reader wishes Chakravarti had shot back.

Red Sun is not alarmist. Chakravarti remains objective, sometimes hopeful, always realistic without letting too much personal opinion distort the already warped picture of the situation presented to the world through propaganda or the media reports. ‘The other side of the ‘just’ war,’ is clearly delineated. The reign of red terror, the instant justice delivered on rapists, informers, nay sayers, in the form of summary torture and beheadings. Crude methods match the establishment’s sledgehammer approach.

Still, Chakravarti cannot help warning about the coming storm, not a full-scale civil war of the naxals versus the rest of us, but the crisis of miscommunication, the confrontational stance adopted by the state against the naxals. The burgeoning Indian state of yore that wanted to be everything to everyone, make wrist watches, play the banker, provide medical care, build roads, secure the nation against outside attack, and unable to do any of those things well, is now retreated, fragmented into millions of conflicting interests. It has no means, no will to understand its own people. It fecklessly condemns and prepares for the final showdown. The naxal crisis is more a last stand for the Indian state, the most brutal questioning of its legitimacy.