You Say You Want a Revolution

An inspired account of the radical movements of the 1960s and 70s

01 January, 2011

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.”)

What this led to on the ground was an incredible sense of fellowship among young people, forged through worldwide protests against the Vietnam war and against the oppression of the Palestinians, the singing of the ‘Internationale’ and the circulation of the venerated little Red Book of Chairman Mao’s sayings, the inspiring student and worker uprisings in the Paris of 1968 and the hope represented by the Prague Spring, radical movements across the world from the Tupamaros in Uruguay to the Zengakuren in Japan, and, above all, the faith that the world would be a better place when bourgeois capitalism was replaced by a workers’ state. Though the world’s young are now immeasurably better networked and do not need to follow world events with their ear on a crackly transistor radio, Simeon’s novel is a stark reminder of the fact that today, a mere four decades later, this kind of internationalism is unimaginable. In the 21st century we are like each other less on the basis of a shared faith and more for what we collectively consume—a united front based on, say, Levi’s, Facebook and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Revolution Highway is an inspired account of not just that unique time but of the many different ways in which its protagonists put it into words. Pranav, the son of a Bengali police officer charged with eliminating the Naxalites in Calcutta, Mohan, the son of a newspaper journalist with jingoistic tendencies, Rathin, a student-intellectual seeking to forge his own path, and Sin Taw, who punctures every profundity with devilish humour, sit around in coffee houses and dishevelled hostel rooms discussing their potential role in the Revolution. These are genuinely political debates and form the heart of the novel. While Pranav and Mohan uphold Marxism with the zest of new converts, the Socratic questioner Rathin challenges them with theories such as “Communism is the last Semitic religion and not the most attractive one at that” or reminders that it is actually the arch-nihilist Nietzsche who ought to be regarded the forerunner of those communists who now believe in “purifying violence.” (As another character, retired schoolteacher Abani Chakrabarty and one of the novel’s voices of conscience, says towards the end of the novel, the vision of a time beyond good and evil, one which political dreamers use to justify the crimes of the present, is a delusion that Nietzsche clearly recognised.)

Meanwhile “campus theatre edges towards the world stage” and the boys go out into the hinterland to mobilise the peasants and workers who, once drawn into the movement and organised into annihilation squads, will lead the overthrow of the state. The encounter between bourgeois students and peasantry inevitably collapses the tension of class differences into laughter. Stumbling among the fields of northern Bihar, trying to get the toilers interested in his message, Rathin realises that “strenuous manual labour was not conducive to listening to recitations from the Red Book.” Later, he pretends to be asleep while a puzzled old widow and a village wise man discuss the meaning of his presence in their village. “Khan sahib took a few moments to think deeply. Then he spoke without altering the line of his gaze and to no one, rather like an oracle. ‘Eee,’ he said, and paused. ‘Eee…podhtey-podhtey; podhtey-podhtey paagal hoyegaley. This is a student gone mad with reading books,’” unwittingly echoing the Chairman who had said that the more you read, the more foolish you become. Rathin manages to leave the village with his dignity intact but comrade Anand is not as fortunate:

…Anand had barely begun reading from the Red Book to a peasant tending a patch of rice paddy when he got stuck in a marsh. The news travelled quickly and a small crowd of villagers gathered to watch him sink into mud and slime. The peasant who had been the target of his world historic propaganda wore the expression of someone accosted by a talking parrot. ‘Bachao, bachao,’ Anand had yelled… Finally, one of them had passed him the long end of a bamboo which he clutched desperately, bruising his hands as he emerged from the morass. The Thoughts of Chairman Mao disappeared into Mother India.

WHILE THE PEASANTS ARE IMPERVIOUS, the Delhi comrades do manage to establish contact with the urban proletariat. The character portraits of mill-hands, truckers, railway workers and teashop owners are among the best in the book, serving not just to authenticate the story but also draw attention to Simeon’s own sympathies and interests.

Jehur Ansari, a railway maintenance man in Bihar, is one of the novel’s many reminders that the events of the late 1960s had their roots in an older history of resistance. Jehur’s father, Altaf, was a machinist in Jamshedpur’s Tata steel plant and a participant in workers’ movements of the 1920s and 30s, which attracted communists from as far away as Goa and the North-West Frontier Province—men who brought news of the Pathan Red Shirts resisting the British and of the Spanish Civil War, comrades who distributed bagfuls of Left-wing literature and taught the workers the ‘Internationale’ in Hindi. Having grown up in this milieu, Jehur is able to make one of the most telling points about the communist movement from a worker’s point of view, saying to Rathin that “The middle class lederaan think they’re the ones motivated by ideals while us humble folk are led by our stomachs! They don’t understand us…Workers struggle against humiliation… Revolution is a matter of our self-respect.”

Simeon’s working-class characters are often more distinctive than his middle-class ones. Pranav and Mohan, the novel’s “commie twins,” are often difficult to tell apart. When preparing to go underground, Pranav challenges his cop father about the corrupt class system. “Freedom for whom and for what? Children rummaging in garbage dumps for food can’t make much use of the democratic Constitution. They can’t even dream about an education. Where’s the justice in that?” A couple of pages later, Mohan makes the same argument to his father. “Papa always talks about the nation’s glory. What glory is there in watching children starve? What is the nation if not its people?… Can people eat national glory?”

There are many similar echoes through the book as characters argue with themselves and with wives, friends, parents, lovers and comrades about the right way forward. This makes Revolution Highway less a novel of ideas and more a novel about ideas. Were the pre-Independence revolutionary nationalist movements in Bengal the predecessors of the Naxalite movement and did the violence then justify the violence now? Can women find an honoured place in the movement given that Stalin’s cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov had banned Anna Akhmatova’s poetry and called her “half a nun and half a whore”? Is it Gandhi to whom we should return because he alone understood the importance of facing the truth about ourselves and acting accordingly? Should Dr Louis Fieser take responsibility for having invented napalm? Will China show the way?

Dilip Simeon: Asking questions not only about the Naxalite movement but also the novel’s capacity to portray it. SIDDHARTHA TRIPATHY

Despite the history of numbing violence which the novel presents (often as bare, unadorned fact)—from the Anushilan Samiti’s early 20th-century manuals on murder to the student Naxalite sympathisers in Calcutta being shot in their beds as they slept in the winter of 1970-71—it is, in fact, not this bloody past but an ideological question that sows the first seeds of doubt in the minds of our would-be revolutionaries. East and West Pakistan go to war and India militarily supports the East’s right to liberate itself from the West. It is one thing to know this as established historical fact and another to read about it as it unfolds, with Pranav and Mohan out in the villages, waiting for China to give them a sign. Surely Chairman Mao will intervene to support the liberation struggle of the Bangladeshi guerrillas. Hadn’t Marx said that the working class has no country? Wasn’t this the time to oppose religion-based nationalism and launch a communist struggle across the subcontinent led by the ideals of the Chinese Communist Party? Instead, Chinese Premier Chou En Lai writes to President Yahya Khan:

China and Pakistan are friendly neighbours… The Chinese government holds that what is happening in Pakistan at present is purely an internal affair of Pakistan, which can only be settled by the Pakistan people themselves and which brooks no foreign interference whatsoever.

Mohan considers writing to Chairman Mao and explaining to him “that the situation had been incorrectly interpreted by the CCP…” But this is no longer just a matter of betrayal by the Chinese. The Naxalite movement is riven by the events taking place in the east. Should the comrades support an interfering India, a recalcitrant, aggressive West Pakistan, the democratically-elected leader of the new Bangladesh, or that country’s Leftist guerrillas? Revolution Highway ends at one of the most fragmented and frightening moments in the subcontinent’s post-Independence history. Though an epilogue is inserted to tie up loose ends, it is really the German nihilist, in the last conversation between Rathin and Mohan, who appears to have the last word. “Nietzsche said humanity is doomed to march step by step into decadence. Arse-first or crotch-forwards: Same difference!”

THE EPILOGUE IS NOT IMMATERIAL, however, if it is set in a today relative to the novel’s yesterdays. This present from whose vantage point past events are described tends to envelop them in the haze of all “battles long ago.” A potential drawback of narrating stories of revolution as coming-of-age tales is that by the time we come to such an epilogue and our heroes are older and wiser, it is not just their exploits but also the political ideals that fuelled them which come to seem like so many romantic delusions.

This is the case in, for instance, Hari Kunzru’s gripping 2007 novel, My Revolutions, which is set in exactly the same years and depicts young men and women in London seized of the same socialist dreams. (The sometimes uncanny similarity between the two novels proves nothing so much as that impressive ‘one world’ sense I referred to earlier. Characters in both novels quote the 19th-century Russian anarchist Sergey Nechayev’s, “The revolutionary is a doomed man.” Mao’s call to arms in Kunzru’s novel—“In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun”—becomes in Simeon’s a shocked realisation of how “The Revolution had made avowal of murder into a test of decency.” Anna in one novel and Pranav in the other both declare individual desires immaterial in the face of the larger cause and yet characters in both recognise the absolute centrality of desire. Thinking of the comrades, Divya notes, “Their obsession with Action always had something to do with violence. Still, all their controlled ruthlessness carried an erotic charge…,” while Chris in Kunzru’s novel says, “If you believe in free love…as the release of libidinal energies from any restraint, any check whatsoever, the barrier between desire and action becomes terrifyingly thin and permeable.”)

MyRevolutions is also, like Simeon’s novel, a recollection of a heady time from a standpoint several decades hence. The contrast between that Britain and this one seems absolute to the novel’s hero Chris Carver—he would never, unlike Flaubert, mix the age of politics with the age of shopping. Speaking to his teenage daughter, he says, “You’re lucky that politics feels optional, something it’s safe to ignore… To be fair, I suppose you’re just a child of your time. Thatcher’s gone, the Berlin wall’s down, and unless you’re in Bosnia, the most pressing issue of the nineties appears to be interior design.”

Because the contemporary Britain of the novel is apparently a place where “ideology’s dead,” it is possible for Kunzru to portray the past with a certain idealised fervour even if this past had its own bleakness—the minor incursions against the state made by a group of drugged out, underfed, unrelentingly idealistic anarchists who are drawn to self-destruction. The irretrievability of this past is also what gives other accounts of that time, despite their angry and violent tone, a romantic tinge—such as the 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex, about the 1970s West German Leftist urban guerrilla group.

Dilip Simeon approaches this partially shared past somewhat differently. He does not shy away from giving us a history lesson—not just on the Naxalite movement but also the longer history of violent uprisings and bloody clashes on the subcontinent. By stepping back repeatedly from the concerns of his characters to show us this larger background, he seems at first to be compromising on his fidelity to the novelist’s task. Nirmal Verma’s A Rag Called Happiness (originally published in Hindi in 1979), also set in Delhi of the same era and likewise a novel in which young middle-class characters try to reinvent the idea of freedom, is one example of such fidelity. Here, the exploration of the characters’ inner worlds, far from the hum of public events, not just takes precedence but could also be seen as an argument for fiction’s proper compass.

Simeon, on the other hand, seems to be asking questions not only about the historical significance of those times but also, implicitly, the capacity of the novel to portray them.

If the Naxalite movement is not sealed into an inaccessible past but an ongoing war in our midst, then to narrate it as the lost dream of the high-minded young would be not just paltry but dishonest. Revolution Highway shows us how the bloodiness of the world sets limits on the beginnings-and-endings neatness of fiction and undermines its love for the human interior. Storytelling cannot but fragment to reflect the shattered world it is trying to capture. And this is why, eventually, Simeon is not a Flaubertian. To that 19th-century novelist the world, revolutions and all, was never too much to recast as fiction. To this 21st-century one, the novelist, like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, can at best contemplate the enormous wreckage of the past that has piled up at his feet.