Of Angels and History

Posted on November 14, 2010

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[A truncated verison of this review appeared in Outlook Magazine, 22 November 2010; posted below is the complete version.]

by Manjushree Thapa

Anyone interested in India’s Naxalite movement will find much to linger over in Dilip Simeon’s enjoyable, jangly, rough-and-ready novel Revolution Highway.

Right off, Simeon makes quick work of establishing the context from which Naxalism emerged, as the characters debate the legacies of the Bengal famine and India’s independence and partition. The Soviet-China rivalry of the 1960’s and the ensuing split in the CPI and the CPM have a particular bearing on the characters’ consciousness, as does the founding of Bangladesh. But they are mainly concerned with poverty, and violence as a means of liberation.

The main characters are students at the Mission College in Delhi, Pranav and Mohan, and their friends, family, love interests, and comrades-in-arm. Their minds ablaze with the Vietnam war, the American civil rights movement, feminism, the struggle for Palestine, the Prague Spring, and strikes in France—not to mention the Situationist International and Sartre’s late conversion to Maoism—Pranav and Mohan are drawn to increasingly radical campus politics.

But their qualms grow as they progress from being Naxal sympathizers to ‘whole-timers,’ abandoning their studies and going underground to ‘integrate with the peasants.’ The Naxalite movement is rife with doctrinal differences. And their quest to prove themselves through ‘Action’ brings them face-to-face with violence.

It is hard not to like a novel with a chapter called ‘What Is To Be Done?’ wherein genteel urban radicals, integrating with the peasants, struggle to defecate in public.

Indeed, the dissonance between the protagonists’ high ideals and lowly actions is striking throughout the novel, at one point prompting a tailor to ask: ‘Bhaiji, don’t mind my asking, but what do you and the Comrades do? To bring about revolution, I mean.’

Comes the only half-modest reply: ‘Nothing much! We just loaf about keeping ourselves busy.’

Revolution Highway is more than a satire of revolutionary romanticism, however, for long after Pranav and Mohan end their youthful adventurism, Naxalism continues, and grows, presenting the state and the citizenry with grave ethical challenges. These challenges have been Simeon’s central concern as an academic.

As a novelist, Simeon is decidedly Tolstoyian, launching on mini-essays—on violent uprising, weaponry, torture—and dropping original documents from historical events into the story. The pleasures of such a text are more idea-driven than novelistic. The reader is invited not to feel, but to think—and think hard.

Yet like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history—who gazes at the ever-growing wreckage of history, helpless to repair it—the novel does examine, with understanding and with sadness, the debris-filled history of Naxalism.

This debris—and the attractiveness of violent means—only increases today. Revolution Highway is timely, thought-provoking, and important to read, and not just for readers in India.

Posted in: Reviews