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Review: The Politician by Devesh Verma

By Lamat R Hasan
PUBLISHED ON MAY 07, 2021 05:56 PM IST
An election meeting in New Delhi, 1957. (Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
366pp, ₹599; Penguin Random House

The Politician by Devesh Verma is as much the story of Ram Mohan, an ambitious Kurmi from a small village on the outskirts of Kanpur, as of India from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Verma, who quit his 22-year career in TV journalism to complete this book, has done a splendid job of portraying the nation’s socio-political fabric in the decades following the end of the British Raj.

From Jawaharlal Nehru’s subtle handing over of the political mantle to his daughter Indira Gandhi to BR Ambedkar’s fight for the untouchables, or his proposed Hindu Code Bill being seen as “wicked interference with the age-old Hindu personal laws of divine provenance”, there is hardly any political event of significance that has escaped Verma’s attention.

Some other renowned figures of the era have taken on fictional lives in the book. Like Choudhary Baran Singh, UP’s revenue minister, an upright politician and the voice of the peasant class. Other powerful politicians of the time are simply referred to as Sansad-ji or Tiwari-ji or Shukla-ji.

The gentle and effortless unravelling of these complex minds, and the timelessness of this tragic-comic novel by Verma, who won a Sahitya Award for a translated work in 2004, deserves praise.

The Politician could be the story of any aam aadmi trying to make a mark in the politics of newly independent India, or in 2021. Except that the protagonist, Ram Mohan, is different. Singularly ambitious, he does not let his humble beginnings or his jaati unsettle him in deeply caste-conscious Uttar Pradesh, the political heartland of India. A scholar endowed with remarkable oratorical skills and the ability to see stumbling blocks as disguised opportunities, his pathological optimism and cunning have no precedence in Parsadpur village. While pursuing higher studies he seeks the company of Brahmins, the most educated caste in the country then, and avoids “the futility of associating with the unlettered”. Fourteen months after independence, he is a firm believer that “nothing could thwart talent and hard work in independent India”. When he does encounter the great caste-class divide, he works at procuring the political or bureaucratic backing essential for any Kurmi to lead a respectable life. With renewed vigour he continues to scale heights that are out of reach of the peasant class. He also embraces violence, almost unblinkingly, to fulfil his political ambitions. “‘I am the master of arms and augmentation both,’ he would declaim.”

Following his postgraduation in Hindi literature, Ram Mohan’s original ambition is to bag a lectureship in Kanpur’s DAV College, populated by the upper class. He begins toying with the idea plunging into politics after a chance meeting with Krishna Lal Tiwari, a forward-looking politician who challenges caste exclusivity.

After making inroads in the murky world of UP politics, Ram Mohan meets Dixit-ji, the state’s education minister, and his friend, the influential Choudhary Baran Singh, both from the Congress Party. The latter, who is batting to abolish the zamindari system, takes Ram Mohan under his wing. Ram Mohan wins Singh’s confidence, and with the next elections still a few years away makes time to finish his doctoral thesis.

After Indira Gandhi’s ascension, Singh parts ways with the Congress and floats his own political outfit. Ram Mohan finds the development exciting, his political goals finally in sight. His focus on caste is to achieve his own political goals, and not the social uplift of Kurmis. He ignores Baran Singh’s advice against running after short-term electoral gains. “The real test of your idealism and intent comes only when you’re in power and want to remain there,” Baran Singh tells him.

Ram Mohan grandly announces his new political role to his family, who live in eternal fear of him. Kanti, his once vocal wife and a champion of girls’ education, who was left behind in Parsadpur to tend to the land, is moved to Kanpur, where his older children have already been attending schools.

Author Devesh Verma (Courtesy the publisher)

As Ram Mohan’s political career takes off, he has to undertake trips to Lucknow and New Delhi. His wife and children are only too happy to have him off their backs. While he is away, they take a break from their caged existence and catch up on the movies, meet friends, and visit markets.

Ram Mohan’s family tries to come to terms with his duality – charming the world with his oratory and humour while ruthlessly tormenting his own. His inability to resist women from Kanti to Gayatri to his PhD students and even the house help is an embarrassment for the family, yet the women of his household come across as strong-willed. Both Kanti and Nisha, his oldest daughter, stand up to him, even when they are being physically thrashed.

His near and dear ones in the village are also not spared. His neighbour, a relative’s son, is flogged on his orders until his legs can feel no sensation. When the relative dies, Ram Mohan goes to the village to express grief at the untimely death. Often, on such occasions, he recites shlokas to justify his actions.

As the years roll by, Ram Mohan works on publishing his doctoral dissertation, and becomes a confidant of the all-powerful Sansad-ji in New Delhi, which is where all political destinies are sealed. Sansad-ji is close to Indira Gandhi. Ram Mohan hopes to become a Rajya Sabha member. The news is out in the newspapers already, his house is spruced up, congratulatory calls are pouring in, and Ram Mohan cannot wait for the formal announcement.

It’s difficult to suppress a chuckle while reading Verma’s witty take on post-Independence India. My favourite bits were the description of the public toilet, and why people preferred taking to the wall instead, and of how Ram Mohan excitedly huddled his family into the living room, time and again, to announce his “new” political assignment.

The reader may find gaps in the story and wonder if Verma is planning a trilogy, as suggested by Deena, Ram Mohan’s youngest son, who takes his own life and leaves behind long notes in a VIP suitcase for Kartik, his journalist friend.

Verma’s writing is candid, and this fast-paced political thriller, but for few tedious details, is a winner.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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