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Do a web search for a list of the greatest works by Indian authors and you would be forgiven for thinking that India emerged from an English settler colony. These lists carry all the usual suspects – Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aravind Adiga, and if you are willing to dig back further, Nirad Chaudhuri, Mulk Raj Anand, RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Kushwant Singh, Arundhati Roy, and Kiran Nagarkar. The brave ones might even carry Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul. Personally, I am a great fan of the works of Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul, two authors diametrically opposite in personality as well as style of writing…one as succulent as a Kerala tender coconut, the other as dry as English toast!

Yet these lists perturb me: are the compilers of these lists truly claiming that the only books worth reading by Indian authors are in English? At least, that is what it seems when there is no disclaimer stating linguistic preference. One can only fervently pray that when we talk about the greatest books, pecuniary returns are not the sole or even primary criteria. What caught my attention about this is that when one thinks of the best books by, say, Egyptian authors – another country colonised by the British – the first names to come to mind are Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Nawal El Saadawi, Alaa Al Aswany, Youssef Ziedan, and so on – Arabic writers. It is hard to expect Indian authors to have such uniformity of language but it is odd that not even one writer in the vernacular – and there are so many to choose from: SL Bhyrappa, Shivram Karanth, Kuvempu, Jeyamohan – makes it onto these lists. One might not even realise that there are vibrant local literary circles in India.

To correct this fawning over English novels, below is a short list of Hindi novels that one should not miss. In the era of Google, it is not difficult to just search for critically acclaimed novels in Hindi or any other language. For that reason, this list leaves out the most famous littérateurs like Yashpal, Premchand, Kamaleshwar, Amrita Pritam, Nirmal Varma, Narendra Kohli, or Ajneya, of whom even those not familiar with Hindi might have heard. But why make a list of second-rate novels? That is not what is presented below, a list of B-grade works that no one has ever heard of – rather, it is a collation of lesser known works by equally accomplished writers. Mindful of the interests of many of Swarajya‘s readers, the suggestions below are novels with a political commentary. They have an interesting story to tell of a newly independent India, its politics and its society, and the doubts, worries, desires, thinking, and priorities of half a billion people that is often forgotten by the younger generation.

I confess, I am no connoisseur of Hindi literature; my exploration of that world started when someone I knew from Twitter recommended the non-fiction works of Gurudutt to me (See? Twitter is not all about outrage, and you’re doing it wrong if you feel fatigued!). I was surprised at the difficulty of locating his books and in the process bumped into five or six other novels I enjoyed more for the light they shed on a historical period that has been whitewashed by the dominance of the Nehruvian narrative of scientific optimism. For that reason, I have deliberately selected political novels that serve as subaltern commentaries on Congress’ India of the first three decades. Why subaltern? Because subaltern denotes the voiceless and anything not sung in praise of the Party and its leader fits this description quite well. And it is fun to appropriate and repurpose words from those that disagree with you 😀

1. जयवर्धन (Jayavardhan), Jainendra Kumar. The protagonist after whom this 1956 novel is named animates Gandhian principles throughout the story. In line with Marxian political theory, Jayavardhan sees the state as an instrument of oppression and the legitimacy of political power deriving from its monopoly on the narrative of violence. True to his idol, of course, Jayavardhan believes that violence can be conquered by non-violence and thus present the strongest challenge to the state. Centralisation of the state’s functions also means a concentration of power, and industrialisation divides society into fractious classes. For the protagonists of this novel, the ideal situation would be the dissolution of the state into small cooperatives as people trust and depend on the government less and less. How exactly this is to be achieved remains a mystery as it does in the political theories that inspired this work.

Particularly interesting is a short discussion in the novel by one of the characters about how Jawaharlal Nehru and his cohort used Mohandas Gandhi for their own benefit before independence and then abandoned the old man as soon as their purpose with him was done. In fact, Nehru is strongly criticised for wanting to blindly ape the West in his desire for adulation and glamour. For its time, Jayavardhan comes off as a shockingly frank novel.

2. बगुले के पंख (Bagule ke Pankh), Chatursen Shastri. Written in 1958, this novel is a satire of Nehruvian India’s political system, or at least what it had become within just a few years of independence. Shastri tells the story of a Congress party MP who becomes the commerce minister in the national government. The protagonist, portrayed as a hypocrite and an opportunist, would do anything to capture political power. As such, Shastri provides an interesting view of electioneering tactics of all political parties from the perspective of an engaged citizen. Echoing Franz Fanon’s 1952 work, Black Skin, White Masks, Shastri compares the office bearers of independent India to their erstwhile colonial masters. The Congress has taken over the bungalows vacated by the British, a character says, and homespun has become a symbol of hypocrisy and malfeasance. Shastri’s works, including this one, are inspired by Gandhian utopianism, promoting the virtues of village cooperatives and non-violence while denouncing imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, as well as socialism.

3. भगण मंदिर (Bhagna Mandir) Anant Gopal Shevade. This is a fascinating novel from 1960 that has as its theme the slow yet steady increase in corruption in society. From Shevade’s perspective, this is due to selfishness and a non-spiritual outlook in life. Unable to resist the overpowering and seductive pull of moral decline, the protagonist, a chief minister, transforms from a highly principled patriot before independence into a governmental apparatchik who appoints and promotes his relatives above others, awards government contracts for favours, intimidates honest workers, and plays one group of civil servants against another. Such policies not only makes the government ineffective but it also repels competent people. Shevade was also a Gandhian, and his critique of India under Congress rule came from Gandhian principles of nonpartisan democracy.

4. राग दरबारी (Raag Durbari), Sri Lal Shukla. A biting satire written in 1968, this novel tells the story of a young academic who comes to stay with his uncle in his village. The uncle, a doctor, is one of the most powerful men in town. Through charm, connivance, bribery, and intimidation, he also wields influence over the grain cooperative, the intermediate college in the village, and even the panchayat. There is, of course, a rival faction in town, and during the stay of the academic, the village erupts into burglaries, lawsuits, and vandalism. Shukla is himself a retired civil servant from Uttar Pradesh and he brings that personal experience of dealing with factionalism, political horse-trading, and village level politics to the novel. The ineffectiveness and helplessness of the state political and legal machinery is clearly shown yet in a humorous manner. In the backdrop is a visiting intellectual who begins to realise how much of what is taught in “organised India” is simply idealistic make-believe and out of touch with the reality of “unorganised India.”

5. दो लहरों की टक्कर (Do Lehron ki Takkar), Gurudutt. This is two-volume novel of historical fiction that puts the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj in opposition to each other. Both movements opposed British rule in India but the former tacitly accepted the superiority of Western thought while the latter rooted its opposition in Hindu philosophy. This is a fundamental dispute among Indian nationalists to this day – while some espouse notions of libertarianism and the free market, others stick by traditional values and moderation in all aspects of life. In the tussle between Brahmo and Arya, Gurudutt elucidates a traditional Hindu critique of unreflective Westernisation and its agent, the Indian National Congress.

Though Gurudutt’s historical fiction is an interesting work, his novels are, in my opinion, uninteresting and below par. In case you are wondering, some of his fictional works include दस साल बाद (Dus Saal Baad), भग्नाश (Bhagnaash), and नए विचार नई बातें (Naye Vichaar, Nayi Baatein). Unfortunately, they all become predictable after you’ve read the first one. The protagonists are usually enamoured by the false promises of socialism or communism in the beginning but are awakened to the realities of Leftist politics via their own experiences inside the system.

[Tangent] I came to Gurudutt through his political philosophy and it would be unfair to tar him for his shortcomings as a novelist now. Gurudutt’s non-fiction includes titles like धर्म और समाजवाद (Dharm aur Samajwad), धर्म संस्कृति और राज्य (Dharm, Sanskriti, aur Rajya), and हिन्दू राष्ट्र (Hindu Rashtra) in which he lays out the case against secularism and for the Indic spirit of the Indian state in the simplest and clearest articulation I have read in any language. By comparison, contemporary politicians and ideologues come off as incompetent fools trying to reinvent the wheel. His बुद्धि बनाम बहुमत (Buddhi banam Bahumat) challenges the democratic system from an elitist point of view with historical anecdotes and reasoning; in essence, Gurudutt echoes Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset when he rejects egalitarianism as a delirious fever of the masses.

Gurudutt’s ideology matches closely with that of Swarajya, at least in its older incarnation. He was a strong and vocal critic of socialism and the entire Nehruvian India ecosystem’s anti-Hindu policies. He was obviously no fan of either Nehru nor Gandhi, seeking intellectual camaraderie instead with the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. He believed that concepts like ahimsa propounded by Gandhi were dangerous and had caused the Hindu to lose his kshatra, leaving him vulnerable to the dangers of missionaries, invaders, and half-baked political ideologies. [/Tangent]

There are, of course, novels written by Marxist authors too, yet they do not seem to have any positive things to say about Nehru or the Congress either. Others, like Phanishwar Nath Renu, who were not ideological in their writing, nevertheless depicted the failures of the Indian state in raising its citizens to a level from where they can take care of themselves. My foray into these novels was revealing because these books show a side of India and the political discourse that is not as easily visible were one to merely go through the archives of newspapers or the majority of history texts.

It is foolish to underestimate literature in the vernaculars; there is a goldmine out there, capable of teaching history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology all in the form of powerful and gripping stories. I hope that this short list encourages readers to consider what the five best novels – political or otherwise – in their own languages are and submit them to Swarajya in the form of reviews or annotated lists. It would be a simple way to encourage local literature.


This post first appeared on Swarajya on May 09, 2015.

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