HOW BEST TO WRITE HISTORICAL REVOLUTIONS into fiction? Gustave Flaubert showed us one way in his grand 19th-century bildungsroman, Sentimental Education, in which events and ideas of great national significance are—seen through the novelist’s impartial eye—at par with private dreams about interior decoration. Protagonist Frederic and his friend Deslauriers are walking down a Parisian street, the latter declaiming nostalgically about one of the heroes of the French Revolution, Camille Desmoulins. Meanwhile Frederic, who has recently come into a large inheritance, is, unheeding of his friend, “looking at certain materials and articles of furniture in the shop-windows which would be suitable for his new residence.”
Dilip Simeon, whose novel takes us through the radical Leftist movements of the late 1960s and early 70s, is a Flaubertian to the extent that he pins his story of the subcontinent’s political upheavals onto the adventures of a group of students from a Delhi college. He is also Flaubertian in his impressively wide lens—able to depict, with equal felicity, a Sikh trucker’s life, a middle-class Bengali intellectual’s preoccupations, and the history of labour movements in a steel plant in Jamshedpur. But whereas Flaubert in Sentimental Education gives a particular historical moment in mid-19th-century Paris so dense a literary texture that we are left certain of no conclusion except the emotive power of fiction, Simeon’s method is more collage than weave. He ranges, through the arguments between his characters (and in the small essays and reports inserted into the narrative), over subjects like revolutionary Marxism in India, communal riots and the minutiae of war.
To read today of Delhi campus talk from that era is to be struck, first of all, by the intensity and awareness of the debaters. These are young men barely out of their teens, electrified, like their counterparts around the world, by the famous advice of a student broadcaster in Berkeley: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” Historical awareness is the ammunition of the movement, for what is the Revolution if not the fulfilling of historical inevitability? (“Class Enemies! Great People! Brave Martyrs! Bright Future! Crimson Path! Enveloped in exclamation points, the imperative of Revolution left little room for discussion or doubt.”)