A Critique of Naxalite Movement

Posted on June 2, 2011


[Published in: The Sentinel (Assam) ]

by Subhajit Bhadra

Dilip Simeon’s first novel, Revolution Highway is a significant attempt in the domain of Indian writing in English as the author deals with the Naxalite movement that shook the Indian State during the late 1960s and early 1970s and the after-effects or implications of that movement as the members once associated with Naxalism indulge in serious contemplation based on retrospective hindsight. There is a commonplace allegation against the Indian writers writing in English that they generally ignore local issues in their writing compared to their counterparts who write in regional languages and Revolution Highway acts as a counter to such allegations as Simeon’s novel deals with the origin, implications and impact of the Naxalite movement on a large canvas which is considered by many a typical subject to be dealt effectively only by regional writers.

However, Dilip Simeon also makes an attempt to place the Naxalite movement within the larger historical context of the revolutionary movement in different geographical locations of the world during the 1960s and that is how the novel acquires an international dimension. The novel prioritizes the gradual expansion of the Naxalite Movement through the trials and tribulations of three protagonists from different socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds — Pranav,  Mohan and Rathin as they initially succumb to the revolutionary rhetoric of Mao and Charu Majumdar, the chief architect of the Naxalite Movement in West Bengal but later on become aware of the pitfalls and limitations of the movement which failed to create any definite impact except in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and certain parts of the Northern Indian region.

There is a conscious attempt to understand the implications of the Naxalite movement from a retrospective perspective as the novel captures the disappointments and disillusionment of the associates who once actively participated in the grand dream of eliminating class enemies, building a corruption free society and upholding the great ideals of Marx.

The novel provides a severe critique of the Naxalite movement as it brings to light the pain and pathos of a generation of brilliant youths who killed and died without any valid cause or reason, the anguish of the helpless parents as they were mute spectators to the destruction  of their sons and daughters, the ruthless domination spearheaded by Siddhart Shankar Ray and carried out by Tapan Mukherjee in West Bengal, the clash between ideological commitment and personal emotions and the gradual dissidence within the Naxalites themselves regarding larger international historical developments. The novel deftly deals with the implications of the American invasion into Vietnam and its after-effects, the War between India and Pakistan caused by the liberation of  Bangladesh, the rise of Pol-Pot regime in Cambodia and the role of China and USSR to safeguard the interests of Pakistan and India respectively.

Simeon exhibits subtle narrative dexterity as the narrative framework not only shifts across time, but also across different geographical spaces and throughout the novel there is a juxtaposition of the elite and popular discourses. Modernists made a serious attempt to uphold the elitist discourse in their works but with the advent of postmodernism, popular culture gradually gained prominence and Dilip Simeon’s novel provides foreplay of such popular discourses within its textual universe as he incorporates lines from numerous popular Hindi songs, refers to a number of popular Hindi movies of that time and famous English songs of the 1960s that appealed to the passionate feelings of the youths. Simeon deserves kudos as he has done meticulous research for the novel — a fact that can be corroborated by the many newspaper clippings that he attaches to many chapters, a few transcripts of radio interviews about important historical upheavals and perceptive details that brings to light hitherto unknown facts about the activities of the Anushilon Samiti in pre- Independence Bengal.

Revolution Highway gives enough space to the conflict between America and Vietnam, which has not been previously dealt with by other Indian novelists writing in English and in this context one is reminded of the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House V that brought to light the shattering magnitude of American violence in Vietnam. Two great historical figures — Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi emerge as potent but absent figures in the novel as the believers and non-believers of their ideologies grapple with the relevance and implication of their views from contemporary perspective and in this connection I was reminded of Derrida’s Spectors of Marx which argued how even the detractors of Marx were haunted by his ghost.

Dilip Simeon has created aesthetics of polyphonic discourses in the novel and this sometimes becomes a flaw as the readers are distracted and an objective assessment of Revolution Highway from the generic perspective has to be quite guarded. Great writers like Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann had dealt with greater historical issues in their novels like Anna Karenina, War and Peace and The Magic Mountain and all these novels prioritized free-interplay of numerous discourses but the discourse was never imposed from outside as it emerged  from the conflict and clash of the characters’ destiny and actions. The author of Revolution Highway could have exhibited more restraint regarding the imposition of several discourses which sometimes impinges upon the narrative from outside and readability suffers in the process.

However, Simeon has shown remarkable prowess in handling language in Revolution Highway as the novel provides satisfactory examples of appropriation of the English language by an Indian author, (that begin with Raja Rao’s Kanthapura) a fact that can be authenticated by the mention of words  like “anudder” (another), “piss-taul” (pistol), “gen-win” (genuine), “udder” (other) which are also interesting puns. Simeon is a widely-read person and his vast erudition in different disciplines of knowledge gets reflected in the novel and this is spontaneous. Though Simeon’s novel is a politically charged one where larger historical and social issues predominate yet is a relief to come across such a sentence that also reveals the inherent literary merit of the novel:

“Loneliness is the discrepancy between what you are and what you might have been”.

The titles of different chapters chosen by Simeon consciously echo other titles; one interesting example is “The Accidental Death of a Communist” which echoes the title of the celebrated play by the Italian Nobel Laureate Dario Fo The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and looked at from this angle, the novel can be considered a postmodern novel as it incorporates within its fabric intertextuality, narrative playfulness, free play of popular culture and a mixture of the sublime and trivial.

The novel also raises important concerns regarding the role of women within the context of the Naxalite movement in particular and revolutionary ideal in general and the articulation of women’s anguish is filtered via the consciousness of Maya and Divya.

The epilogue juxtaposes the resolution of both the public and personal matrixes as the novel ends with a life-affirming tone and Revolution Highway is both a significant and interesting addition to the canon of Indian writing in English as it deals with a crucial phase in Indian socio-political history in a broad canvas.

Posted in: Reviews