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Been there, done what?

Hari Kunzru looks at that great form of performance art of the '60s and '70s: the revolting youth. Soumitro Das tells more.

india Updated: Oct 08, 2007 13:15 IST
Soumitro Das
Soumitro Das
Hindustan Times

My Revolutions
Hari Kunzru
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Price: £4.50
Pages: 277

This is a book that had to be written, this is a story that had to be told, this demystification of the last great mythical occurrence in recent times had to be done. Known by various names — May ’68 in Paris, the civil rights and anti-war
movement in the US, Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the Naxalite uprising closer to home — this occurrence displays a coherent sense of purpose, a unity of goals through space and time, despite the fact that it was not moved by a single historical agent (like a political party), such that it all can be subsumed under the term, terrible and pathetic at the same time, of ‘Revolution’. An uprising of the youth of the world.

And despite the violence wreaked, willingly or unwillingly, it was unlike any other revolution that had gone before it. In fact, as the noted French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy put it, the task before his generation, the generation that came to maturity, politically and sexually, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was to end totalitarianism and bring the Eastern bloc back to History. Or as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the student mobs in Paris, put it succinctly: “We do not want to live like that anymore.” In other words, we want to get laid with whosoever we want, whenever we want and wherever we want.

Seen from the perspective of the sexual revolution it brought about, Marx was a bourgeois philosopher and his idea of utopia with its monogamous couples, the idealisation of the family — so faithfully taken up under Stalin — and the virtue of hard work, all of it stank like a prison. The uprising of the youth was essentially an uprising against the family and work and nationalism. It was about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. It was the revolution of the hip.

Hari Kunzru understands all this and is not surprised at feeling nostalgic about a time he has not lived through, like most of us who were only buffeted by some of the aftershocks of the seismic occurrence that had fizzled out by the mid-Seventies.

His character, Chris Carver or Michael Frame, is an ordinary foot soldier of the revolutions — and Kunzru is right about the title too, it is ‘revolutions’ in the plural — who begins his career as a militant by taking part in a march for complete nuclear disarmament (CND) and is straightaway thrown in prison. When he comes out, he finds similar-minded people living in somebody’s flat in Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill, east London. Here he immediately comes into the presence of Anna Addison, a kind of a sex goddess who has thrown in her lot with the more radical elements of this collective and to which Chris Carver badly wants to belong. Carver’s story is being recounted by Michael Frame, who is the post- 1960s avatar of Carver.

Carver becomes Frame in order to escape from his revolutionary past and its terrible hopelessness. Kunzru seizes upon the contrast immediately: “The more I thought, the clearer the moral landscape appeared. There seemed to be two worlds. One was basic and sensual, a human-scale place of small tasks and pleasures, building things and eating good food, lying in the sun, making love. In this world, the human relations were very simple. The desire to dominate, to own and to control, just didn’t arise. The other world, the world of Law and War and Institutions, was a strange and abstract place. In this mirror-world, I was a violent person and had to be punished because violence was the monopoly of the state.”

The violence, though, takes its time coming. At first, the small band at Lansdowne Road carry out occupation of unoccupied council housing in order to give shelter to the homeless or steal food to feed the hungry. The scale of the official retaliation against these actions was manageable. That was because they didn’t shake the establishment to its roots.

The group is led by a charismatic, goodlooking person called Sean Ward, who takes his revolution very seriously. He is dissatisfied with the way things are going and also because certain other elements have joined his group and are clamouring for the violent overthrow of the State. It was not enough, Carver realises, to simply pick up guns and go outside to have a fight with the police and the army and God knows who else. It was a question of a personal transformation.

As Kunzru puts it: “A revolutionary transformation of society would require a transformation of social life, a transmutation of ourselves. Everything about my own family confirmed this. If I was to be free, I had to be free of them. But I also had to recognise that they were prisoners too. It wouldn’t be enough to kill Daddy and marry Mummy. We had to kill the engine that generated all the daddies and mummies, throw a clog into the big machine.”

This is where the international uprising of the youth was so different from all the other revolutions, which were merely political revolutions, obsessed with the seizure of power and changing the ownership of production. This revolution went much deeper than the political and economic revolutions of the past. For somebody like Lenin, for instance, the use of violence was not a question; it was a given. A classless society could be established only by violent means.

But for Chris Carver and his comrades, the question of violence was the primordial question. “For some people violence is easy, even familiar. For a few, it’s actively pleasurable. For most of meant overcoming almost insurmountable barriers, mental and physical. We were afraid.”

This is a beautifully written book, without naiveté or cynicism.

Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer