(Published in the Business Standard, April 27, 2010)
At the height of the first Naxal movement, reflections of the revolution could be seen in the works of writers from Kerala, Bengal, Andhra and other “affected” states. Some romanced the gun, some romanced the revolutionaries; some were fiercely anguished works that are still read, if only in the college library.
It is unwise to expect the conflicts of the day to draw an immediate response from writers, but the Maoist conflict in India over the last few years has begun to leave its mark on writing in English. You may or may not be among the ranks of Naipaul believers, but give him credit for his sharp instincts.
In 2004, four years before Red Sun, Sudeep Chakravarti’s non-fiction exploration of Salwa Judum and the Maoists, was published, Naipaul came out with Magic Seeds, in which his protagonist Willie Chandran joins a revolutionary movement in India. Like C P Surendran’s 2006 Iron Harvest, Magic Seeds illustrates the pitfalls of writing about revolution. Ideological debates seldom make for strong plot points, and it requires the cynical eye of a Graham Greene to turn calls to the barricades into good writing. Naipaul flourished his own brand of cynicism: “Murders of class enemies — which now meant only peasants with a little too much land — were required now, to balance the successes of the police.” But if Iron Harvest was imbued with an excess of revolutionary fervour and disillusionment, Magic Seeds exuded listlessness.
Perhaps non-fiction will be the more useful form for this insurgency, or conflict. Before Arundhati Roy walked with the comrades, Jason Motlagh did a prescient piece that reflected his unease with the aims and the violence of the present-day Maoists. In 2001, journalist Satnam had travelled to Bastar to meet the comrades; his deeply sympathetic account was published in 2003 in Punjabi. Jangalnama: Travels in A Maoist Guerrilla Zone (Penguin) has just been published in English, and it’s both interesting and dated.
Satnam is blunt about the fact that his sympathies lie with the Maoists, and in many parts, Jangalnama reads like a paean to the simplicity and openness of tribal life — with a nod to the considerable economic hardships. “The laws of Manu have not influenced their lives,” he observes, joining in with the 18-hour marches, the collective song sessions, the basic meals of rice with pumpkin gravy. There is much understanding and sympathy here — in fact, the parallels between Satnam’s journey and Roy’s more recent journey are startling — but no questioning of violence, and little reflection on the lives of the children whose co-option into the movement as young guerrillas is essentially choiceless. Jangalnama is interesting as a historical curiosity, but Satnam’s romanticising becomes a barrier. The great revolutionary novel or account of this decade is yet to be written.
RIP, Alan Sillitoe
“A sure qualification for turning into a writer is to grow up with a divided personality…” Alan Sillitoe, who died this week at the age of 82, wrote in his biography, Life Without Armour. It’s a pity the book is out-of-print, because it remains a remarkably honest account by one of Britain’s Angry Young Men.
Sillitoe’s life was brutal; his father was a vicious drunk, his mother sent him — briefly — to an institution for the mentally challenged because they provided free porridge and daily meals, and he led a working man’s life for years before making his bones as a writer. But this is really a reader’s biography: pages and pages taken up by lists of what he was reading, the early discovery of the Williams and Biggles books, the comforts of the public library. He was a voracious reader, despite his father knocking books out of the young Alan’s hands.
Sillitoe wrote a great deal more than most realise, but the book we all remember is iconic: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It marked a point in British writing when stories about “us” and “them” were being written by “them”, for perhaps the first time in the 20th century. The protagonist discovers his talent for cross-country running while in a Borstal prison, realises both a genuine passion for running and his contempt for the governor who wants him to win a specific race. Instead of mourning Sillitoe, read Long Distance Runner again: “Cunning is what counts in this life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can; I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only ‘them’ and ‘us’ had the same ideas, we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand.”
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