Dilip Simeon’s debut novel is funny and nostalgic about young radicals. If only he’d left out the lectures, says Nivedita Menon
THE INTERNATIONALE rings out in Japanese and Hindi on the Grand Trunk Road. Japanese cyclist and Indian truck-cleaner exchange clenched-fist salutes before parting. Maan gaye yaar, says Hardip Singh the truck-driver admiringly, it’s true, you fellows have an international party.
My good friend Dilip Simeon’s Revolution Highway is studded with such moments, conjuring the headiness of the 1960s when everything seemed possible. His long awaited novel presents five friends studying in Delhi University who get drawn into the prairie fire of the Naxal movement. Middle-class, privileged, sheltered young people — four men and a woman — enter unimaginable worlds. They secretively take trains, buses and trucks to remote corners of India, sometimes followed by “healthy North Indian” policemen. They courier guns, plan and witness killings, visit prostitutes for purposes other than sex. Around them, French students are ‘demanding the impossible’, Vietnamese peasants hold American might at bay, India is at war with Pakistan, and at the novel’s end, Bangladesh is born. These individual lives and their loves and passions unravel over the momentous horizon of nothing less than world history.
AMBITIOUS, FLAWED and deeply engaging, Revolution Highway is expectedly hilarious in its anecdotes, self-critical of vanguardist leadership and the idea of individualised violent revolution, and utterly moving in its evocation of moments of solidarity between these young people and those whom they naively seek to liberate. The dignity and quiet self-possession of ‘the masses’ confronts the middle-class revolutionaries when a peasant silently shares his scanty meal with a young “kamrade” and then, before he can pull out his literature, says simply, brooking no debate, “Now go.”
Simeon’s rich chortle echoes in these pages. There is an insanely funny incident involving a snatched revolver and a box of spilled bra straps; the young comrades are inspired by a leader who walked relentlessly for days beside a peasant ploughing a field, “giving him politics, giving him politics”, until that peasant became the leader of the first annihilation squad in Midnapur; the shop receiving clandestine revolutionary mail is called kamrade di hatti.
The novel is interspersed with archival documents from the freedom struggle and precious first-person reminiscences of Simeon’s parents and others of their generation. This to and fro works much of the time to texture the present. But in the final analysis, as Simeon the Marxist might himself say, the somewhat pedantic historian stifles the storyteller. The hugeness of the backdrop overwhelms the interiority of the characters. Too much history is related in wordy discussions and solemn authorial asides.
And yet. They do haunt you — these young people, their failed revolution. Especially today, when the idea of revolution has electrifyingly come to life again.
Menon teaches political science at Delhi University
‘The Tatas have inward not outward cut-throat aggression’
By Vilasini Roy
For R Gopalakrishanan, executive director, Tata Sons, the Tata Group is a way of life. He says the group does not have outward cut-throat aggression, but there is an inward aggression. In an interview with TEHELKA, the industry veteran discussed his new book When the Penny Drops: Learning What’s Not Taught that talks about how life itself is a good management guru. Excerpts:
The book is about overcoming obstacles and becoming a good manager and leader, something that cannot be learnt in the classroom. Why not?
There are some things that can be taught, things that can be converted into rational knowledge. What you cannot teach are experiences — the softer side. When people interact, they can either have a positive or negative effect on each other. It is easy to teach the positive effects. Teaching the negative is harder; it is something nobody tells you. This lesson comes from analysing your own experiences.
When did the penny drop for you?
As a young man I had not spent much time in the north. I went there to work with a salesman. I was aware that as a boss I could judge his work, but he was twice my age and in Jalandhar, where he spoke the language, knew the dealers and the culture but I did not. When I expressed a lack of satisfaction with his work, he asked me to do it myself. I did the work, but not as well as he did. It taught me that a leader has to know the work of his subordinates before judging them. It taught me humility.
From HLL, did working with the Tatas change your idea of leadership?
I came to Tata at a fairly late age, post-50. At Tata, the way they talk to people is a lot less aggressive than at other companies. Underlying all the action and the management discussions is the thought of impact of their actions on the community.
But many say the Tatas are not aggressive…
There is a perception, especially now, of equating aggression with success. People think that if you don’t show your claws and bare your fangs you get trampled over. The Tatas don’t have an ethos of outward cut-throat aggression, but there is an inward aggression. If you remember, Swami Vivekananda was outwardly very calm but inwardly strong and aggressive. Many saints are like that. I’m not saying the Tata Group is a saint; my point is that outward aggression should not be equated with success.
‘Our cowardice is troubling’
With a comprehensive people’s history of Mumbai, Gyan Prakash tells GAURAV JAIN what makes the city malleable and what is bending it out of shape
Gyan Prakash, 58, had seen Mumbai only once before he landed in the city in 2000 on a sabbatical. The subaltern historian at Princeton University visited the city regularly over the next decade, the result of which is Mumbai Fables, a cultural history chronicling daily urban life. This means investigating the history of cultural enjoyments (films, magazines, comics), living spaces (slums, bazaars), artistry (Raj Kapoor, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai), political murders, scandals, land grabbing, Marathi regionalism and the underworld, among others. Influenced by Jonathan Raban’s classic urban portrait Soft City, Prakash “defamialiarises” common things. Mumbai Fables is written mostly with a gusty fluency but here and there we still get the slightly auntyish tone of an Indian historian. Over coffee at a Bandra café, Prakash spoke to Gaurav Jain about the city’s unique magnetic pull. Excerpts:
What is Mumbai’s charm for you?
You come to Mumbai for wealth but also for a sense of self-making. It rewards you for imagination, energy, work, confidence. There are fewer links here to caste or kin. The city feels malleable. It’s the most plastic city in India. Delhi has the depth of Mughal history, Chennai and Kolkata have their secure Tamil and Bangla cultural definitions.
Isn’t that charm eroding with its recent regional chauvinism?
First, there was the long colonial overlordship, then there was the nationalism project and now regionalism demands your identity against urbanism. Mumbai has not defeated the Shiv Sena since all political parties have accepted it as a Marathi city. So the Sena has won at the level of the State, law and regulations — but not everyday life. It can’t impose its Marathi hegemony on Mumbai life.
What about its fabled cosmopolitanism?
People have always been conscious of their identity, but daily life forced them to live together. South Indians in Matunga wear trousers and speak English outside. At home, they wear lungis and speak Tamil. The ruthless cosmopolitanism of elites never existed, it was just an ideal. It was restricted to an elite class. The rapidity of the 1992 riots were due to a culture of suspicion. Elites could pretend that such identity differences didn’t matter. Everyday cosmopolitanism does exist but without cosmopolitan ideals. So Dharavi, segmented separately for South Indians, Konkanis, etc., creates an urban solidarity. We should learn from their ethical ideal of living together, not tell them to learn from the elite’s mythical ideals.
How has Mumbai changed artistically?
It used to be a place for free imagination for modern writers. Now, the radical politics is gone. Manto said you can live on two pennies or two lakhs a day here, Bombay doesn’t care. Like Greenwich village, Lower Parel is now yuppie town. The developers grab land for bowling alleys and malls, so there’s no creative dynamism. The musicians and writers live in the suburbs.
Are you optimistic about a ‘new’ Bollywood?
Hollywood has a spectrum, Bollywood is still narrow. Independent cinema is derivative. Even a film likeEmotional Atyachar is derivative of Reservoir Dogs and Snatch. Film writers are the most unappreciated lot. Earlier, most great film writers were immigrants with life experiences. Now they live restricted lives, they’re children of filmmakers.
What bothers you still about Mumbai?
First, the intellectual thinness still bothers me. The commercial motive here is dominant. Second is the majoritarian logic of political parties — the imposition of Marathi, signboards, ideology. Everyone including Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan pays obeisance. The cowardice is troubling. Third, the relentless builder-led redevelopment is staggering. They seem to own the government.