Sunday, October 17, 2010

Revolution Highway - Book by Dilip Simeon

The Revolutionary Road - Review by Subodh Verma

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

It was 1951 when these famous lines were penned by Langston Hughes, a Black writer and poet who shot to fame in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He was, of course, thinking about the American Blacks' struggle for dignity and justice. Dilip Simeon's novel on the Naxalite movement in the late sixties comes close to giving answers – if rhetorical questions like these need answers.

Naxalbari dramatically came into the public consciousness in 1967 and, for the next few years, a violent peasant revolution was on the agenda – or so it seemed. Simeon sketches out the ingredients of what went into making those heady, intoxicating days. There was a worldwide upsurge against the brutal US war against Vietnam, with dozens of US university campuses turning into battlefields. In France, a student rebellion broke out backed, for some time, by a general industrial strike. The Chinese Communist Party emerged as an active supporter of all kinds of uprisings in the third world, propelled by its extreme Cultural Revolution ideology. Within China, intellectuals and party leaders were thrown aside as students quit their studies and left for the countryside to continue the revolution.

Inspired by this ferment, and angered by extreme poverty and injustice in India, many middle class intellectuals and students joined the Naxalite struggle. Among these were a group of students from Delhi's St. Stephen's college. Simeon narrates their story, referring to the college by its other, less well known name, Mission College. Although his sympathy lies with the students, Simeon spares nothing in describing their doctrinaire understanding, their Chaplinesque attempts to incite the leaden peasant to revolutionary acts, their pathetic attempts to understand their failures. Simeon's knowledge of those years and events is authentic, right down to the hideouts in north Delhi's poor colonies and the strains of Hendrix and Joplin. The depressing inevitability of what is to come – complete and total rout – fills the whole book. Mercilessly ground down by the police, the movement descends into squabbling, bloodthirsty packs fighting a bitter battle for survival on the streets of Calcutta.

It is a vast, epic theme – the crushing of dreams – and Simeon succeeds in showing that it was foretold – because of false premises and erroneous means. The text is deconstructed, flitting between times and places. The prose is laconic, often unattractively so, although Simeon's penchant for Hindi swear words is in full play.

Yet, the novel leaves one tortured – is there no hope? Is all action futile? Is injustice infinite? Simeon is unable to hint at anything because this work is an attempt to show that all violence is doomed to fail. In that ahistorical straitjacket, answers are not easy. One is reminded of lines from a Pink Floyd song, ca.1979 – "The child is grown, the dream is gone. I have become comfortably numb.

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