The anti-national

  • Amitava Kumar
  • Updated: Mar 05, 2016 20:58 IST
A shared humanity: Stories like We Have Arrived in Amritsar show that violence doesn’t discriminate. But that is a problem. Because our humanity isn’t as universal as we often assume it is. Which explains why I like Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. It presents a starker picture.

If the police were to burst into your room while you were sleeping and, putting a gun to your head, ask you to name a literary work that was critical of the idea of the nation, which title would you reveal?

Those who read Saadat Hasan Manto in school will go back to that early memory. We all remember Toba Tek Singh: the occupants of the lunatic asylum not being able to comprehend the Partition, and the old Sikh Bishan Singh dying in no man’s land between the borders of the two countries, unable to decide where he belonged.

But the memory of this story is for me mixed with the white of my school uniform, the safety of home, and the taste of cornflakes in the morning. Which means the call of the nation begins to seem merely like nostalgia for lost childhood. Nationalism in this scenario becomes only an appeal to sentiment.

Let us go further afield, then, to a far country, to look for the literature of sedition.

I hope that even in my sleep I will be able say that my choice is JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Coetzee, born in Cape Town, South Africa, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003. Waiting for the Barbarians was published in 1980, a decade before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the dismantling of apartheid. Its story is narrated by a magistrate, a loyal servant of the Empire in a frontier settlement. He is a man of ordinary virtues and ordinary vices. He reminded me of Hukum Chand, the magistrate in Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan. Like Coetzee’s magistrate, Hukum Chand possesses a sense of justice and a fondness for food and easily acquired female flesh. He is not noble but his flawed humanity is a bulwark against the rigid, annihilating certitudes of others around him.

In Coetzee’s nameless country, the picture darkens with the arrival of Colonel Joll, the interrogation expert. The Colonel, with his trademark dark glasses, questions the tribesfolk living outside the settlement’s walls. In precise prose, Coetzee describes Joll’s art of torture. The magistrate protests – he has also become attached to a young tribal woman who has been tortured – and is thrown into prison. He is seen as an anti-national.

I haven’t read much fiction by Indian writers that deals with authoritarianism or torture. Apart from what appeared in the wake of Naxalbari, our deepest and most despairing writing about the nation was in the context of the Partition. Of course, even before Independence, Tagore had written: “Patriotism cannot be our spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity.”

And the Partition stories worked because of their call to a shared humanity. Consider a story like Bhisham Sahni’s We Have Arrived in Amritsar. The narrator’s focus is on a frail and nervous-looking babu sitting in a train compartment and mocked in a friendly way by three Pathan traders. The mood changes as the train passes towns where a riot is raging. The countryside is filled with fleeing refugees. As the train approaches Amritsar, the babu has vengeance on his mind. He finds an iron rod. He is an angry nationalist now. He hits it on the head of a Muslim man who is pleading to get into the train. We feel the horror of the blows on a helpless man. The babu’s main regret is that he is unable to find the Pathans and take revenge.

Stories like We Have Arrived in Amritsar succeed because they show that violence doesn’t discriminate. The Hindus and the Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis, are all interchangeable in the most memorable Partition stories. You look at the murdered or raped figure – and you see that the victim could have been one of your own.

But that is a problem. Because our humanity isn’t as universal as we often assume it is. Which explains why I like Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. It presents a starker picture. The so-called barbarians don’t look or behave like the townspeople. They appear aboriginal, live in the mountains, and speak a different language. The magistrate’s attempts at finding a common humanity are fumbling and crude. They arouse suspicion. When he ministers to the young woman, what are his motives? He makes her his mistress before taking her back to her people. He is hoping for peace but there isn’t any. There is only devastation.

Silencing the adivasi: While reading JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, I thought of Govind Nihalani’s film Aakrosh.

I will be called anti-national for saying this, but while reading Waiting for the Barbarians I thought of Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980). Remember the tribal Lahanya Bhiku, played by Om Puri, who is jailed by the forest contractor and the district officials on the charge of murdering his wife? But Bhiku hadn’t killed her; the real story was that the contractor and his friends had raped Bhiku’s wife. While reading Coetzee, the fiction of Mahasweta Devi also came to mind, the stories of state violence and adivasi resistance in Singhbhum. Then, I thought of Soni Sori. Suddenly, Coetzee seemed to be telling the story of adivasis who are tortured because they are suspected of being militants. I could close my eyes and see what is happening in Bastar today.

The Bookist is a monthly column

From HT Brunch, March 6, 2016

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