Of A Revolution in the Making

Harvest Song, an abridged and translated version of Sabitri Roy’s trilogy, Paka Dhaner Gan (1956, 1957, 1958) has been subtitled in English as a “novel of the Tebhaga movement.” The Tebhaga (sharing by thirds) movement was a militant campaign by sharecroppers, spreading over at least nineteen districts of undivided Bengal, especially the districts of Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Jessore, Khulna, Mymensingh and 24 Paraganas during the year 1946-1947. The primary demand of the sharecroppers, commonly known as the bargadars or adhiars was the scrapping of the custom of sharing the annual produce of crops between themselves and their respective zamindars or landlords on a fifty-fifty basis. Instead the share croppers campaigned for the reduction of the share appropriated by the landlords to only a third of the produce. This movement, initiated by the Bengal Provincial Krishak Sabha, the peasants’ front in Bengal of the then united Communist Party of India, was a landmark in the history of Indian Communist mobilization, and is indeed represented as such by Sabitri Roy (1918 – 1985), almost a lifelong fellow – traveller, though never a card-holding member, of the Communist Party.

A Promise Not Kept

Jogajog is perhaps Tagore’s least discussed novel, eclipsed by the political rhetoric of Gora and Ghare Baire, the romantic intensity of Chokher Bali and Shesher Kabita, and the philosophical density of Char Adhyay. Two recent translations, however, draw attention to this lacuna in Tagore scholarship: Hiten Bhaya’s translation Nexus, published by Rupa and Co., and the present translation by Supriya Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri’s Introduction is one of the strengths of this edition, for it locates the novel historically, while opening up a series of contemporary debates about subjectivity, cultural values and modes of representation.

A Coming-of-Age Tale with a Difference

One began with the premise, influenced purely by a perusal of the blurb, that this was one more novel about the coming-of-age of a slightly confused exemplar of urban youth today set amidst the ubiquitous urban landscape of contemporary Delhi. One presumed, therefore, that the novel would be about a slightly moony young man, being shunted around from job to job and love to love in search of existential bliss, and would be full of his ramblings in a booze or hash-induced state while walking the streets of the “unreal city”, in this case, Delhi.

Adventures in Flight

The Passarola, or the great bird, was a flying ship that was supposedly a cross between a balloon and a glider, designed by a Brazilian Father Bartolomeu Lourenço in Portugal in 1705. Azhar Abidi takes this piece of information and weaves a tale of historical fiction based on the aviation pioneer and his brother Alexandre. This great flying machine actually takes off in the very beginning of the book starting a series of adventures as the two brothers try to overcome not only gravity but the deep prejudice of the Church in the person of Cardinal Conti who is just waiting for royal patronage to be withdrawn before he can bring in the Inquisition and charge the brothers with heresy and going against nature. As Bartolomeu says wryly the clergy is afraid that with flying high the brothers may find ‘Perhaps that the heavens are empty and there is no God.’ While we root for the two brave men, we can sympathize with the Cardinal who warns ‘Those who possess them (flying ships) will use them against those without. No city and no state will be proof against their consequences’. And it is a warning well foretold as it is later used even if minimally on behalf of the French against the Russians to rescue the king’s father-in-law!

A Feel-Good Novel

This is an interesting debut novel, as much for what it does as it what it does not do. Eraly is a historian, and perhaps as such felt the need to look not at the larger picture but the smaller one, at some of the myriad lives that finally write the history of cultures and civilizations. But a history of feeling, a history of individual families and the pulls and pressures within them is best written as fiction, especially if you are a trained historian who cannot betray your method in your academic writing. I have a sneaky feeling that this family saga found its origins not just in the personal urge to tell a story (and the belief that each one of us has at least one novel based on our own lives and experiences) but in a historian’s desire to map the changes that have swept the cultural (including ethical) and economic life of a community through the experiences of a family.

Magic Islands and Survival Experiments

This is a book which has been written by someone now safely entrenched in the world of historical fiction. It is Kunal Basu’s third book, the other being The Miniaturist and the Opium Clerk. The cover has the picture of a young black boy, and aesthetically the verdant sense of fronds and the sky imprinted by clouds and exotic rorsach of images makes one wonder what the book is about. Basu plays with the common themes of the magic island and survival experiments; Treasure Island, Captain Hook and Peter Pan, Dr. Moriarty, Blue Lagoon, the Lord of the Flies and more recently Dinosaur type science fiction a la Michael Crichton, not to speak of Booker winner Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. Yet, being a university intellectual, Basu sets the frames differently. It follows an idea — that of racial superiority and survival mechanisms which has at its hub two children.

Mapping the Mind of an Idealist

Monika Boehm-Tettelbach, (former Head of the South Asian Institute, Department of Indology, at the University of Heidelberg) speaking of Kiran Nagarkar’s fiction, speaks of its ‘velocity’, its ability to keep the reader’s attention focused, while the narrative moves on at a snappy pace. The ease and speed of the flow suggests that the simple and the literal is what is to be viewed. But hidden provocatively within is a depth of vision, feeling, a search for the meaning of life, and of the great eternal questions, the nature of salvation, the meaning of love. It is only too easy to think that it’s just a tale well told: the complexity of what is being explored is not thrust upon one’s attention, but only gradually unfolds. Humour, fantasy, and sheer good writing help to keep one riveted in the welter of soul-searching.

Fragmented Memories Retrieved

In the 13 years since AK Ramanujan died under anesthesia in Chicago in 1993, much of his unpublished writing has trickled down to a waiting readership posthumously. A stray article shows up in a book of essays or as an Introduction, previously scattered writings are pulled together and a volume of collected essays is published and so on. Ramanujan’s death was untimely for many reasons, not least because he left much undone and was clearly in the prime of his writing, scholarly as well as creative.

Imagining History, Imagining the Universe

Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet who has, by his intrepid creativity and vast output, justified to the world the use of Indian English in writing poetry. There isn’t another poet who has creatively used the language to write poetry on such a wide range of themes. Keki’s poetic career is an answer to those who were — and some still to be found, amazingly though! – sceptical about poetry written in the language of the firingis. Keki himself tackles such people in his satirical poem, ‘Invocation’:

A Techno Tale

Arunabha Sengupta’s novel Labyrinth is set during the years of the computer boom, when hundreds of young Indians found work on the Y2K problem. It gives a vivid picture of their life in a huge software company, interwoven with a tale of young love. In some respects, it parallels Chetan Bhagat’s bestselling novel, Five Point Someone: What not to do at IIT (published last year). Bhagat presented the life of three young men who join the Indian Institute of Technology, after tough competition. Labyrinth shows these brilliant engineering graduates caught in the labyrinth of a huge software company.

Evoking The Ambience of A Place And Its People

“Trinidad was small , remote and unimportant, and we knew we could not hope to read in books of the life we saw about us”. Replace ‘Trinidad’ with ‘Patna’ in that statement by Naipaul, and that is precisely what we felt a generation ago growing up there. Patna was not all that small or remote – capital of a large state before it was truncated, prominently paced in the railway as well the river map of India. Certainly not unimportant because every child knew by heart its heritage from the time Emperor Ashoka issued his rock edicts from Pataliputra to the time it gave India its first President. But a place does not become real just because it appears in history and geography books, literary representations confer on it a different kind of validity—a life in imagination—which Patna lacked. At least in living memory.

Aur Todi Bhi

Jack and Jill/ Went up the hill/ To fetch a pail of water/ Jack fell down/ And broke his crown/ And Jill came tumbling after.
As a little girl I always wondered why Jill lost her cool when Jack fell down and broke his crown! Did she tumble down out of mere empathy? She could very well have run after him and nursed his wounds. Why tumble down? Now, of course, I understand that the whole idea of ‘tumbling after’ can be traced back to the other orientedness of girls/women all the world over. Feminists all the world over defend women’s right to ‘play’ as, in some sense, a retreat from this long term sense of duty, the service ethic that women have, for centuries, been subtly (and not so subtly) maneuvered into.