Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.
In poetry everything is permitted.
With only this condition of course,
You have to improve the blank page.
A short time before the Urban Naxalites were arrested in the ATS swoops, I was invited to be one of the speakers presiding over the launch of a new book – somewhat presciently titled, 13 Years; A Naxalite’s Prison Diary by Ramchandra Singh published by Navayana.
The brief given to us was that each of us would highlight one or more aspects of the narrative that struck us, and perhaps read out a few related excerpts to back our argument. Nobody invited seemed to take offence; or appeared concerned at being labelled an Urban Naxalite; the brief looked good. I began reading.
I read it twice – once at my desk, during the day, sitting straight in my chair at 8 am with a large mug of freshly brewed coffee like I was studying for an exam – and forgetting lunch (which is a stupid meal anyway) and getting up at 5.30 pm to begin seeing about making dinner.
There were minor interruptions of course: time at the window, peeping into the balcony to spy on the pair of totally besotted Lonchura punctulata visiting their grassy home in the spindly bougainvillea winding up to the terrace. Then shouting at four grown men viciously throwing stones on one of the dogs in the area – and happy that my intervention brought the rest of our street dogs out barking, snarling, following the men till they left.
Then a good hour spent standing on the terrace with book in my head, eyes glued to the rain-clad clouds at the horizon, trying to understand the feudal – some would say brutal – world that Ramchandra Singh inhabited.
I read the book again at night, in bed, leaning against the pillows – something I never do. I only read serious stuff in bed. The book got me even more the second time. By the time I put off the light, I got the narrative that got my heart. It was prompted by three triggers in my consciousness (and imagination) that wired themselves in a loop, each interlinked with the other; that went back in time, joining forces with Ramchandra Singh’s book and exploding. But killing no one.
Let me say at the outset that I am not attempting a review of the book. What I will say though is that the book’s language is very evocative, capturing a medium that seems effortlessly ‘Indian’. It catches the sounds of the world in which it is set. The feel, the cadence of the words in English (translated by Madhu Singh), do not sound English . It’s like an “Indian English” spoken in between a tenor and alto, without the caricature and mockery accompanying the term. No Peter Sellers here let me tell you, here’s it is warm and inviting; easy on the ear, like Ramchandra’s actually speaking to you in an accented English familiar to us.
I said this at the presentation, but for my own reasons, also drew attention to the influences in his life – with reference to one short but eloquent paragraph that hit the back of my head:
From ancient times to the present why didn’t the so-called enlightened souls – the saints and the seers, the prophets and philosophers, scholars and thinkers – formulate practical rules for our social system not leave space for such endless misery and sorrow? This should have been the natural condition of human life evolving through the ages, that there be no killings and killers. No dacoity and no dacoits, no sign of crime. No one would be rich or poor, high or low-born. We would have had no compulsion to bear the burden of a repressive state machinery, a police and an army. Prisons would not be needed at all. Such a hypothesis had been made about the communist system in which there is no class distinction. In a classless society, everyone receives a share of the production based on their needs. So, if there is no class then the government too shall not be needed. There will not be the incentive to take to crime. Actually, this hypothesis can come true only when socialism becomes successful, not in one nation alone but the entire world. In his 1924 work, Baisveen Sadi (The Twenty-Second Century), Rahul Sanskrityayan had tried to present a similar blueprint for Indian society. How I wished the learned scholar Sanskrityayan’s vision for the twenty-second would come true.”
Why, I asked S. Anand of Navayana, didn’t he publish the works of this Buddhist scholar, Rahul Sanskrityayan into English – when he has such a body of work in Hindi? His books published in English translation in fact, seems to suggest that the powers that be may have deliberately kept him unpublished. Here, perhaps, is a sense of socialism that many of us – trapped, as it were, in a Judaeo-Christian continuum (and the English language) – may have never encountered before,
Like they have done to the Mahatma, should we bide the time it takes for this doyen of Buddhist thought to be co-opted by the right because he can be integrated in their narrow view of being “Indian”??
You should buy the book. Fill the coffers of this Urban Naxalite press, so they can print all the books they want.
In fact, buy three copies, two of which you gift to younger relatives in the family still in college – and because they too may be worried with what’s happening, prefacing the gift with the words, “Nothing has changed in North India from the feudalism of the 1960s”.
Days after my short presentation at the book launch, I did read a review to see if I got my narrative right. Was I, for instance – ageing, proto-senile Urban Naxalite that I am – way over the top?
I liked Manjula Narayan’s review: she has all the trappings of an Urban Naxalite. Look for instance what she writes:
It is fitting that Navayana has chosen to publish the English translation of Thehre Hue Terah Saal (1970-83), that was first serialized in now-defunct Hindi weekly Shaan-e-Sahara in the early 1980s and republished in 1991 in another now-defunct journal Samkaleen Dastavez, in 2018 when once again India seems caught in an impenetrable ideological fog and when terms like “urban naxal” are thrown around to vilify whole categories of people and to gain favour with the mighty, whose own stand on a range of issues is unknowable and shifting (my emphasis).
Her description of the book is spot on:
…a document that captures both the outer and inner worlds, and the ideological struggles of a bright and articulate, politically aware young man attempting to arrive at a nuanced understanding of how to drive change within a complex inherently violent society riven by caste and class at a particular point in modern India’s recent history…
For more, just turn to Ramchandra Singh. When she brings our attention to the dirty, dank, smelly, downright nasty world of the Indian jail, she is pointed, angry:
…the venal and sadistic prison officials, the deranged, often loathsome fellow prisoners, the leeching out of hope, the filth and the awful food, the stories of smuggling in little luxuries in bodily orifices, the beatings and torture, the gruesome tales of anal rape, and the sudden unexpected acts of kindness amidst the pervasive cruelty. So it is with Ramchandra Singh’s 13 Years; A Naxalite’s Prison Diary
The brief S. Anand, the Urban Naxalite publisher of this book, gave us, was very simple: find something in the narrative that catches you, and read out the section.
The part that got her was the Emergency that the right wing now pulls out like a rabbit from their bag the moment they hear the word ‘critique’. Like they all do with mention of the year 1984.
Ramchandra Singh, has a more cynical take on the emergency, and lots more besides that none of them would like and Manjula Narayan cannily understanding that they are all tarred with the same brush, quotes him:
“On the evening of 26 June 1975… I saw the bold headline of the Emergency on its front page, and the whole newspaper was full of related news. Curiously, the editorial column was blank with only the sign of a question mark that said a lot without saying anything… As far as I can recollect this was the Dainik Jagaran, a Hindi newspaper with a big circulation… I was shocked to learn later that when Indira Gandhi visited Kanpur during the Emergency… the editor of this very newspaper was at the forefront to welcome her. (Later, he became close with the BJP leader LK Advani…) As far as I can tell, to these followers of the Jan Sangh and RSS, the act of putting a question mark in the editorial was only a commercial strategy to increase circulation during these troubled times; apprehending future oppression, they found other ways to surrender before the Emergency.”
I had a small problem with her, which may call on on her Urban Naxalite sincerity. An ideological dispute for want of a better term.
For instance, after taking due note of Ramchandra’s seriously intellectual abilities, she mentions a certain gentleman called Tyagi – a cut-throat publisher if ever there was one – who published one of Ramchandra’s essays, that had attempted, in his own words:
”a reassessment of the roles of Gandhi and the Congress during the period of the nationalist struggle. Part of my argument was that the demolition of public statues of Gandhi and other nationalist figures by leftist protesters in West Bengal was not faithful to the values of the Cultural Revolution, and that political and ideological criticism be kept separate from personal insult.”
But then to spoil it all, she discovers that that same gentleman, the infamous Tyagi, is not at all what he claims to be and becomes yet another cause for Ramchandra’s unhappiness and she ends her review lamenting:
The same Tyagi, the reader soon learns, was later instrumental in the publication of pictures of Jagjivan Ram’s son having sex with a DU student in Surya, a magazine published by Maneka Gandhi. Clearly, plus ca change; plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
This is her ending paragraph and it gives me such huge problems, I would have cut her last line – hacked it off like a good Urban Naxalite! It is a totally unnecessary leap into ideological heresy, namely,with the wimpish words: “Clearly, plus ca change; plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same” (yuck!).
Had she dwelt on it, that sentence is an epigram – a cross between an enthusiastic sub-editor and let us say a literary device – that need not necessarily adhere to its essentially weak (wimpish) – in this instance, French proto-Existentialist moorings. Especially in our present climate.
The trolls for instance, like good ‘Hindus’ (note the single inverted commas!) would readily take it and put their own spin on it – like they have been trying to do with the Mahatma, Vivekananda, Patel, you name it.
So, was I on the same page as her? Was I totally over the top with my own selection? Well, in fairness to me, she does make a passing reference to the narrative that caught my heart.
Some of the most affecting writing – always taut and unadorned by superfluous adjectives – is about his intense feelings for his family and for the girl he loved, and the camaraderie among political prisoners.
My narrative was about “the girl he loved”.
This is where I get you to buy the book – read a history, fall in love, remember falling in love, and perhaps crying when you are alone.
At the book launch I spoke about ‘love’ and I read aloud the sections pertaining to the narrative selected. When you are nearing seventy – Urban Naxalite or not – you can easily find yourself hyperventilating on sadness. I felt myself easily communicating this sadness I found in his book. I cast a gloom on proceedings. In candour I said this at the presentation – that we have forgotten to weep, shed tears – and that a book like this can teach us to cry again.
Ten pages – maybe double that, maybe a few pages more. How can this make you feel like crying? After the launch, a young woman made bold to tell me she liked my narrative but found it very sad. She had tears in her eyes. It’s even sadder than that, I told her, before heading for the bar.
There isn’t a happy ending. In fact, if we don’t put up a fight, there may not be any happy endings in our stories to come.
But you could also imagine this small part of ‘love’ in the book as a ‘period’ film-script. In the book they are lost in three or four parts – a few pages here, a few pages there. It is not that they can be taken away from Ramchandra’s own turbulent history, but ‘love’ is not the centre-piece, which it should be. Therefore, a film script.
But you would still need Ismat Chughtai or Amrita Pritam to take these pages, found in three of four parts of the book, and rework them into a script. The film would be directed by a fledgling Urban Naxalite filmmaker, Nandita Das perhaps.
Taking such a measure would ensure two important things. One – the most important – Ramchandra Singh’s story of ‘love’ would never be a Bollywood biopic. Two, love would be recovered. The film-script would duly remember that ‘love’ was unrequited, a simple fact – yet connected over time, discovered within time, and lost within time.
Someone will tease out the feelings of love that Ramchandra Singh had all those years of incarceration that deserved more, so much more. All those years when he masturbated at night in prison cell, what kind of ideological austerity prevented him from recording a larger ‘love’ conjoined with pain, as history?
Go buy the book then, three copies, fill the coffers of the Urban Naxalite press.
Maybe what really got me in the end was that the foreword to Ramchandra’s book had been written by Angela Davis. This is getting as strong as asking me whether I’ve heard Jimi Hendrix. Knowing who Angela Davis is, sets off triggers in my head, that go back to 1973 – in this very same city. Pune.
They loop themselves, like they link explosives. There is me, the main fuse, in Pune. There is Angela and a book in which she features as a protagonist. There is poverty, tangible, and real. There is a bearded, fiery Dalit poet who dreams of taking over the country. Most importantly, there is the shove away from dark Existential fear to understanding realpolitik, and that space taken over by what can now, very broadly, be referred to as Urban Naxalism – the refusal to succumb to Fascism.
This was in the days when there just two parts to Pune: ‘Deccan Gymkhana’ and ‘Camp’ (‘Pune Cantonment’), where one side was almost wholly ‘Maharashtrian’, the other side ‘Non-Maharashtrian’ (Parsees, Goans, Muslims, students from East Africa, Iran, and Thailand ).
I was ‘Camp’. Maybe because my father studied in Pune in the 1930s – St. Vincent’s School and Wadia College.
Then imagine his son in the same city with serious existential problems. A young man who has never had to feel want while growing up, but now away from his family, saw poverty up close and couldn’t take it. He read Herman Hesse and – even though it was just one among others – had a Buddhist ‘moment’.
He did battle with his life every day, even as his philosophy lecturer at University commented every so often in class that he was a Brahmin but didn’t really believe in the caste system! And yet, he was an eminent man, widely respected, educated at Oxford or Cambridge or wherever, a man who consciously colonized himself to keep the Dalits in their philosophical prison. He genuinely believed that applying ‘logical positivism’ in everyday life would solve the problems of the world. The young man couldn’t take it.
He also had a part-time job teaching in a ‘Night School’ run by Catholic priests – the same school that his father studied in. In the daytime it was St Vincent’s School, but at 6.30 in the evening, it changed to St. Joseph’s Night School. (One was a ‘white’ school, one was a ‘black’ school. The black school attracted kids who had been chucked out by day schools so they wouldn’t bring down the school’s percentage in the boards; or were the first generation of young men, with the first ‘aspirational’ needs – forced to leave school to take up a job – who were now getting back to a classroom; or men, far older, who took up jobs, married, had children and educated them – and now, for pride, needed to finish school).
The young man in question is more than convinced that logical positivism is a crock of shit. Reading Camus and Sartre, being blown away by Allan Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, being introduced to jazz history from a jazz musician while in college, were not bad things. There is something there, he tells himself – he’s not sure what, but he knows it’s there.
He ‘drops out’ of university. Together with a friend, he moves into one room in a Dalit slum, at the border of a middle-class locality that is one side of the school he teaches in. It is, strictly speaking, the dividing line between ‘Deccan’ and ‘Camp’. In the slum, he spends time teaching boys in their late teens how to speak, read and write English. That was the only thing he could do by way of bringing on the Revolution. The education was actually for him and he was not let down.
He read copiously as if that was the only way he could make sense of the world around him. Life was tough on a salary of 75 rupees a month. All it got was tough questions: where does one shit, if you live in a slum and the toilets are clogged? How does one make love if one lives in a slum, without a room of one’s own? What do you do when you open the door of your hovel, and in the drain outside, see a naturally dead buffalo waiting for slaughter, the leather and bones retrieved to sell, perhaps the better parts of meat eaten?
But at least he was making headway to dealing with his ‘angst’, peeling off the skins and slowly entering the larger world of Urban Naxalism.
The book that did it, and brought Angela into my life, was something I picked up in the once-celebrated Manney’s. It cost 10 rupees and I had to scrounge 5 from a girl I knew.
The book was a collection of letters. The letters of a revolutionary, who discovered the Black Panthers Party in jail and educated himself, and saw the evil in the US before ‘Black Lives Matter’. You could say he was also an Urban Naxalite, a kind of Dalit – the term for Scheduled Caste that this dispensation is terrified of.
Not strange that I connected with this book in Pune. I attended three meetings of the Dalit Panthers Party that were held at the other end of the slum. Every meeting started with Namdeo Dhasal (something the urban naxal press Navayana was to publish in 2007 in Dilip Dhitre’s translation) reading out his poems. Three meetings accompanying this crazy poet to the adda in the slum and sharing a bottle of slum-brewed hootch. “What is it?” I ask him. The poet laughs. When he reads his militant poetry before the meeting he has a voice that is like a piercing tenor – like Archie Shepp – and yet, here in the adda, between sips and bites of the clear liquid, coughing over his beedi, his voice takes a lower more comfortable register. He would have been like Lester Young – not a happy sound, but not sad either.
Between two Urban Naxalite revolutionaries my political education was beginning.
An integral part of my political education is the ‘love’ in the collected letters, the Black Panther, writing to Angela and other women, whom he has ‘fallen in love with’. It’s a book, unlike Ramchandra’s, that is bold. Check this extract:
I am very pleased to have someone so warm, and so soft, and so lovely come into my miserable life; I haven’t met any selfless, intelligent (mentally liberated), and aggressive women before now, before you. I knew that you existed but I had never had the pleasure. I am uneasy thinking that you may be attracted to the tragedy of me. I hope not, because my response to you is perfectly personal, your eyes, your voice, your walk, hands, mouth…
But I am in such a hurry!
My life is so disrupted, so precarious, my inclinations so oriented to struggle that anyone who would love me would have to be bold indeed — or out of their head. But if you’re saying what I think you are saying, I like it. (If I have flattered myself please try to understand.) I like the way you say it also; over the next few months we’ll discuss the related problems. By the time I’ve solved these minor ones that temporarily limit my movements, we’ll have also settled whether or not it is selfish for us to seek gratification by reaching and touching and holding; does the building of a bed precede the love act itself? Or can we “do it in the road” until the people’s army has satisfied our territory problem? That is important to me, whether or not you are willing to “do it in the road.”
These letters of ‘love’, appear less burdened than Ramchandra’s memoir, but both are still on the same side of the fence, their politics echoing each other. If you be a little patient, I will hyperlink the book of this Black Panther for you to read at leisure; for now though, pause for love.
I’ll love you till the wings fly off at least, perhaps beyond. My love could burn you, however, it runs hot and I have nearly half a millennium stored up. Mine is a perfect love, soft to the touch but so hot, hard, and dense at its center that its weight will soon offset this planet.
There’s politics and there’s love, can you separate them? Can you live when the beast has eaten your heart? Is the struggle for love different from the fight against Fascism?
I think of you all the time. I’ve been thinking about women a lot lately. Is there anything sentimental or otherwise wrong with that? There couldn’t be. It’s never bothered me too much before, the sex thing. I would do my exercises and the hundreds of katas, stay busy with something . . . this ten years really has gone pretty quickly. It has destroyed me as a person, a human being that is, but it was sudden, it was a sudden death, it seems like ten days rather than ten years.
Would you like to know a subhuman. I certainly hope you have time. I’m not a very nice person. I’ll confess out front, I’ve been forced to adopt a set of responses, reflexes, attitudes that have made me more kin to the cat than anything else, the big black one. For all of that I am not a selfish person. I don’t think so anyway, but I do have myself in mind when I talk about us relating. You would be the generous one, I the recipient of that generosity.
Should you run into Yvonne tell her that I love her also and equally. Tell her that I want to see her, up close. Tell her I’m not a possessive cat, never demanding, always cool, never get upset until my (our) face and freedom get involved. But make her understand that I want to hold her (chains and all) and run my tongue in that little gap between her two front teeth. (That should make her smile.)
Does Angela feature in these letters?
Is she a main protagonist?
A major one.
Does it have a happy ending?
But it has to do with love?
Yes, it does…love almost like poetry:
Do you sense how drunk this photograph has made me.
You’ve got it all, African woman. I’m very pleased, if you don’t ask me for my left arm, my right eye, both eyes, I’ll be very disappointed. You’re the most powerful stimulus I could have.