Hit and Miss

Posted on December 29, 2010



– Highway to nowhere

Nothing of value

Revolution highway By Dilip Simeon, Penguin, Rs 299

As the 1960s closed out on us and the 1970s began with the spectre of lost causes, events in eastern India, and especially in Calcutta, left hundreds of us scarred; we lost many of our friends to the revolution and not a few of them to killings. Inexorably, it became impossible for us to turn our minds away from the news of mass ferocity, of torchings, and a rapidly rising body count which surfaced, hour on hour, from the city and its environs, and since unbound political opinion grows from Calcutta’s cracked pavements in clusters, I believe there were hardly any amongst us who did not take a stand on what was happening all over the strife-torn region, gritty validation to unqualified rejection and everything in between.

At its core, the Naxalbari movement destroyed itself more than anything else as a result of flawed thinking on from where this homegrown revolt should gather its strength, what was needed to keep its momentum going and the imperatives of the ends-and-means issues; moreover, the irreconcilable differences amongst its four prime movers on what was the way forward fractured the party and, as it was famously said in a different context, “the centre could not hold”. A murderous State machinery seized its chances with something cynically close to glee.

In the end, we seem to have gathered nothing of value from the movement. But revolution spawns the creative urge and gives birth to great poetry, strong, evocative, gifted prose, incisive films and things like Guernica. The total experience is sufficient in itself to carry one forward; here you aren’t stoking cold fires, hoping for a spark to appear; the flame this time is high enough for you. Naxalbari was no different.

If, 40 years afterwards, you want to draw on this experience in writing your book or making your film or painting your personal Siqueiros, you still have everything going for you; the dialectics, the drama, the images of courage and cruelty and, of course, the immediacy of disasters like the Chhattisgarh killings on both sides of the divide. You would want to set the record straight on all the spurious, cocktail-circuit similarities that everyone is nibbling at. In other words, you can’t miss. Dilip Simeon sets out to do this, and misses.

The problem with Revolution Highway, it seems, began much before the opening phrases were keyed in. According to the author bio in this excellently produced book, Simeon had earlier written on labour history, contemporary politics and so forth, and he certainly didn’t want to go wrong with his first novel; he had to hit all the right notes on debut. But I believe he wasn’t clear on what sort of book it was going to be. I mean, was it going to be about five characters in search of a movement? Or a chronicle of misspent youth? Perhaps an inspection on what was a collective subversion of the social weave? Had it to be a high-octane political thriller or maybe a sardonic, sideways look at revolution? Should he take his cues from Hajar Churashir Ma or Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla or from Calcutta 71 and Padatik? And here, I’m not being facetious; after all, to the dozen people he has thanked for helping with the book, he has added Chairman Mao, Che Guevara and Uncle Ho.

Thus, unsure of his way and not wanting to leave out anything, Simeon has put in large bits of everything, with unexpected results. His narrative keeps skipping between existential word images that move jerkily from city to village to jail to other cities where characters suddenly appear apparently from nowhere and then disappear without adding anything to the corpus of the story; and whilst you try to remember who said what, where and to whom, the story has moved on to someplace else. More incongruously, his central storyline gets frequently ambushed by split-second political doctrines mouthed by just about anyone and at any time, irrespective of what they are up to, plus loaded insights from the author himself, which makes such intrusions occur about once on every second page. And when there isn’t a political view to be articulated, Simeon inserts some creakingly archival material; I frankly don’t see the point in having to read obscure reports culled from decades-old files and gratuitous information on Dr Louis Fieser and the discovery and uses of napalm. An excerpt from one of Charu Mazumdar’s more incendiary directives, inserted totally out of context, particularly upset me.

Then again, Senior Comrade Saurabh and Comrade TML (because he knows True Marxism Leninism) Bhattacharya are sipping coffee and Simeon, in one short paragraph throws ten political titles at us, from Marx to Mao; mind you, there aren’t any perceivable linkages here, it’s just those titles for you to think about and reflect on how little you really know about dialectical materialism.

Still smarting from its fallout, I looked elsewhere in the book for some — for want of an apter word — verities and found that Simeon’s attempt to create a gritty, edgy, often abusive, scenario ends up as the proverbial curate’s egg: only good in parts. There is no tension in the storyline, no sense of gain or loss, no ‘negative capability’ even, just characters, and the book itself, circling round and round the reality of a revolution and spouting doctrine as if to explain everything.

By the time I reached the end of the book, I was truly confused. I suppose that makes the two of us.

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