Sometimes, to grapple with the present we have to engage with the past. I don’t mean a rehash. (Woh to ho raha hai.) What I have in mind is a close scrutiny of tradition, an exploration of myths, a deep dive into historical archives. Why? you ask.
Because, for one, in India, the past is forever intruding upon the present. And yet, it is a syncopated vision of the past with its tropes of glory, communal harmony, ahimsa… Bapu spun us a story to which we could all cohere — how, after all, do you defeat a Raj whose toolkit was entirely dependant on dividing us? (Besides, ahimsa was such a pish posh way to illustrate to the world that Western civilisation would be a good idea, eh!) The historical truth however is that despite Gandhi’s successful experiment we are a people whose history is mired in cataclysmic violence. What we are also very good with is historical amnesia. Not our fault entirely: mass violence is numbing. Which is where the novelist steps in. (Reason two, if you’re keeping count.)
The task of the novelist is to transform general loss into a specific loss, to give us characters and their stories we can care about. I am at work on a novel set in the months leading up to the independence of India in 1947. Set in two parallel threads, in the two great cities of colonial India, Lahore and Delhi, this is a behind the scenes look at the negotiations, the give and take and the political skullduggery that gave India its freedom via the price of division. Consequently, it is also an intimate look at the friendships destroyed, the loves lost and the carnage that occurred in the sticky hot months of India’s hottest summer ever. Hopefully, the narrative will allow readers to make up their minds about topical assumptions of Nehru’s contributions and the Sardar-Pandit rivalry. (Reason three, and counting.)
The past is never dead, Faulkner said, it’s not even past. (Who knew Faulkner was a closet Desi!) Khair, general elections 2019 have just got over, the journey ahead is long, and I invite my fellow writers, and readers: Why not reckon with that past, and invite the dead to populate our novels? I have been wining and dining and sharing multiple cuppa chais with Dickie, Jawahar and Vallabh, and it’s been one helluva ride! (Reason four, and ending. For now.)