12 writers on their literary experiences of democracy

This election season, Lounge invited 12 distinguished writers to share stories, poems, books and memories that shaped their idea of democracy in India

Every five years, as Indian democracy gears up for its biggest carnival—the general election—publishers fall in step with the spirit of the season. Suddenly bookshops are flush with political titles. From itinerant reporters with their ears to the ground to armchair analysts making heavy-duty predictions to politicians of all colours lobbying for their cause, everyone wants a piece of the democratic pie that is the Indian book trade.

Undoubtedly, there is value in reading contemporary critiques of the state of the nation. But even as we delve into immersive reportage, the data stories, the autobiographies and hagiographies, it’s crucial to remember our primal understanding of the promises of democracy. That’s why, instead of putting out a list of new political books that have graced bookshops this election season, we decided to go back to the first principles. We invited 12 distinguished writers to tell us about some of their formative memories and literary experiences of democracy.

What follows is an eclectic garland of ideas, thoughts and inspirations, strung together with remembrances of poems, stories, novels, non-fiction and defining moments from the past.

Each of these pieces draws our attention to a point of view that is unique, a history of emotions that straddles reading, watching, conversations, and other traces of memory. We hope you will be inspired to look up some of the works mentioned and allow them to expand and complicate your consciousness.

Harishankar Parsai’s Inspector Matadeen Chand Par (1994)

LISTEN TO YOUR HEART’S CALL

Harishankar Parsai’s satire resonates with the drama of elections to this day
—Amitava Kumar

I was recently writing about the drama of elections in a constituency near Gaya for my forthcoming novel, My Beloved Life. I thought of what might be the best description of this process—in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. A mofussil air, the petty intrigues, the shifts in fortune. By the time I was ending my book, however, I inserted a scene that is a classic in Hindi literature, Harishankar Parsai’s Inspector Matadeen Chand Par (1994), or Inspector Matadeen on the Moon.

The father and daughter duo who narrate my novel are on their way to a restaurant in Atlanta. The father is talking bitterly about politicians in Hindi, his voice growing louder as he quotes Parsai, delivering his lines as if at a kavi-sammelan. Even as I imagined the scene, I felt I was paying homage to a writer whose deft satires gave his readers a small measure of agency. A political system that left them helpless could not take away from them the freedom of laughter. Here is what the father recites: “How politicians hear the call of the people just before the elections, this is a trade secret and cannot be shared. The call of the people is sometimes like the bleating of a lamb. The lamb is calling for its mother but it is the wolf who arrives instead. Even if the lamb stays silent, the wolf comes and asks, Did you call me? The lamb says No, I didn’t even open my mouth. The wolf says, in that case I must have heard your heart’s call.”

Amitava Kumar, author of several works of non-fiction and four novels, grew up in Patna and teaches at Vassar College in New York.

Kusuma Dharmanna's Harijana Shatakam (1931)

Kusuma Dharmanna’s Harijana Shatakam (1931)

‘THIS BROWN RULERSHIP’

True democracy requires a deep consciousness of humanity
—Gogu Shyamala

As children, we grew up with stories about independence, freedom and nationalism. Barring a few small treats such as the children’s magazines Chandamama or Bommarillu, we had little access to anything more than school textbooks. So it was only as I grew up and started attaining some paripakvata (maturity) that I began to comprehend ideas like democracy. When I saw children drop out of school, or when I began to comprehend how caste and untouchability is practised in everyday life, I grew restless with asantrupti (discontent). I started looking at the ideas of freedom and the independence movement through the lens of caste. It changed everything.

In 1910, the famous playwright and poet Gurajada Apparao wrote Desamante mattikaadoi, desamante manusholoi (A nation doesn’t mean a land, it means a people) in his patriotic poem Desamunu Preminchumanna (Love your Country). It was a great way to bring humanity into conversations about nationalism. But things stopped there.

No one was asking how, as an independent nation, we could be a true democracy without developing a consciousness of true equality and humanity across gender, religion and caste. For me, one of the most powerful examples of such a consciousness in literature was when the Dalit writer Kusuma Dharmanna (Harijana Shatakam, 1931, inset) took Garimella Satyanarayana’s song Maaku oddhu ee thella dorathanamu (We don’t want this white rulership) in the 1920s and rewrote it as Maaku oddhu ee nalla dorathanamu (We don’t want this brown rulership). With this, he highlighted the deeply entrenched casteism and injustice in our society, especially in bhuswamyam (land ownership).

Then there’s Gurram Jashuva, considered the first modern Dalit poet in Telugu literature. In his works, written between 1919 and the mid-1960s, he would often say that a true democracy has no place for caste, and that the country would fall prey to all sorts of inequalities if caste persists. (His 1941 work, Gabbilam, a subversion of Kalidasa’s Sanskrit text Meghadutam, and in its classical verse-epic form, has a Dalit man as its protagonist. Translated into English by Chinnaiah Jangam, it was published in 2022 and won the US-based AK Ramanujam Book Prize for translation earlier this year.)

Later, the works of poet Dunna Iddasu, writer Bojja Tharakam and scriptwriter Modukuri Johnson all influenced me.

I believe that feminism came in only to fulfil democratic ideals, and to address gaps in its implementation. This is because patriarchy is so deeply rooted in our daily lives. A democracy has no place for patriarchy. In this regard, I have found the works of poets Theresa Devadanam and Nadakurthy Swaroopa Rani exceptionally moving.

Gogu Shyamala is a Dalit, feminist Telugu writer and poet, whose works include Nallapodu: Dalitha Sthreela Sahityam 1921-2002 (Black Dawn: An Anthology Dalit Women’s Writing 1921-2002) and Father May Be An Elephant and Mother Only A Small Basket, But…, a collection of short stories, translated into English in 2012.

As told to Vangmayi Parakala

Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Chha Mana Atha Guntha

Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Chha Mana Atha Guntha

LESSONS IN SELF-CRITICISM

Fakir Mohan Senapati’s writing is a tale for our contradictory times
—Chandrahas Choudhury

We live in a revisionist historical moment where what was thought of as the age of decolonisation and freedom is now projected as merely another kind of colonisation by an entitled elite in thrall of Western ideas. But if history is to be the victory of one ideological position over another, it merely ends up repeating itself, the triumphant blast of a revolution followed by the contradictions and evasions of the new order beginning to show through.

In 1902, Odia novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati showed how to be anti-colonial and self-critical, to look outward and inward at the same time, with his wonderful satirical novel Chha Mana Atha Guntha (Six Acres and a Third). The book is about a corrupt zamindar’s attempt to take over the small land holdings of a farmer, but it is shot through with sly comments on colonialism, imitation and political and religious hypocrisy, that of the Hindu priest no less than the British babu.

Senapati’s irony is particularly effective because of its double-sidedness, and leads to a point useful as much in our time as his own. That is: criticism of a clearly marked-out “other” (to Indians in the early 20th century, the British; to Hindu nationalists today, Muslims and “Congressis”) often legitimises a sweeping and complacent faith in one’s own worldview and willingness to look past the moral failures of one’s own side. The search for truth or meaning in history must remain a charade if not accompanied by the capacity for self-criticism. The novel’s argument is liberating not because it is comforting or inspiring, but precisely because it is disenchanted and sceptical.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Clouds and Arzee the Dwarf.

Also Read: Why has ecofeminist art acquired greater urgency in today’s times?

VOICES FROM THE PAST

Oral history reminds us of the fundamental rights of citizens
—Urvashi Butalia

In the mid-1980s, when I was researching people’s memories of Partition, I listened to Basant Kaur, a woman from Thoa Khalsa village in Rawalpindi. She described to me, haltingly, and with tears in her eyes, a moment in March of 1947 when a group of nearly 85 Sikh women jumped into a well in the village to drown themselves, in an attempt to avoid possible rape by men of the “other” community. Pressured by (mostly male) elders from the community, the women felt, or were made to feel, that the community’s honour resided in their bodies.

From Damyanti Sahgal, another woman from Punjab, I heard a different narrative. To subvert the government’s policy that only women under 28 could be given jobs, Damyanti took a group of women of all ages who had been “rescued” and “recovered” after they had been abducted to the magistrate to get affidavits that they qualified for jobs. The magistrate refused: the women had white hair, one was toothless, another wrinkled, how could he assert they were under 28. Damyanti, a servant of the state, pushed him to go against state policy for the sake of the women. Pushed into a corner, he did, and the women were able to find work.

Four decades later, a group of women Partition refugees, all widows, protested outside the house of the then Union home minister, Buta Singh, demanding an increase of a few hundred rupees in their widows’ pension. They coined a slogan (long before Shahid Kapoor used it in his film) “sadda hak, ethey rakh”, and shouted and sang it, braving the searing heat of the summer, until the State conceded their demand.

What do these stories have to do with our lives today? As we head towards another election, we might do well to remember that the deep-rooted belief that the honour of the community and the religion lies in women’s bodies has not gone away, and until we see women as rights-bearing individuals and full citizens of a nation, we are not going to see much change.

Damyanti’s story, and that of the widows, hold out some hope—of being able to speak to the State, hold it accountable, make demands of it. This is a precious right that democracies give their citizens. It would be a tragedy if we were to lose this.

Urvashi Butalia is a writer, independent researcher, and founder of Zubaan, a feminist imprint. Her books include the award-winning oral history of Partition, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.

Jalla’s Teeth by Akhtar Mohiuddin

Jalla’s Teeth by Akhtar Mohiuddin

THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF WOMEN

Democracy depends on how far a society goes to understand its women
—Farah Bashir

Jalla’s Teeth by Akhtar Mohiuddin left an indelible mark on me. It’s a short story about Jalila Rasul, a young woman empowered with training in the Indian legal code, and her father Rasul, a man of humble means. He is proud of his daughter and wears her achievements (BA, LLB) on a plaque outside his house.

One day, he has to urgently meet his friend, but the city is under siege. Jalila, called Jalla endearingly by her father, takes it upon herself to negotiate with the soldiers stationed outside their home to let her father pass through. The negotiation turns into confrontation, and a protesting Jalla is beaten mercilessly by the soldiers. The following day, when the curfew is lifted, Rasul is seen searching the street. Upon being asked what he is looking for, he replies: The beads of Jalla’s teeth.

Jalla’s character had a profound effect on me. I often wondered about the particularities that she experienced as an empowered woman, and her consciousness as a young Kashmiri woman, unafraid to fight for her basic rights. It made me ponder two fundamental truths. Firstly, who is the protector in a conflict zone: the daughter or the father? Secondly, it made me wonder about the unknowability of Kashmiri women. Kashmiri female characters, through popular culture, are often infantilised or exoticised—what do these representations reveal about the intersection of gender and politics in the Kashmiri context?

For societies to function fully depends on how far they are willing to go to understand their women.

Farah Bashir is the author of  Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir.

 Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe

Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe

A REVOLUTION IN SONG

Ray and the toppling of statues by citizens seeking freedom
—Nilanjana S. Roy

I have been re-reading the screenplay for Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Land of the Diamond King)—made in 1980, this brilliant political satire could have been set in 2024. A wealthy king rules over the land with an iron fist; his treasury brims with diamonds and gold while his subjects starve and suffer. Goopy and Bagha, the singing heroes of Ray’s light-hearted 1969 film Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne, travel through Hirak, witnesses to the brainwashing of protestors by an evil scientist whose machines take care of any seditious thoughts, replacing critical thinking with empty slogans.

The greatest danger to the Hirak Raja? Education—so a schoolmaster, Udayan Pandit, is told to shut down his school, and to teach the children in his care a warning rhyme: “Those who learn to read and write/ Will die under the wheels of a car, that’s right.” Hirak Rajar Deshe was Ray’s response to the Emergency, but also a foreshadowing of what might happen to a kingdom where the ruler is sustained by vast wealth, fears learning, and keeps an anxious eye out for rebellion—and what is a call for justice and equality if not a call to overthrow the throne?

In one of the most beautiful (and funny) twists in cinema, the realm finds its voice, and the tyrant is overthrown not by a bloody revolution, but by the power of song. Even the tallest statues will someday be toppled, Ray promised, if you seek freedom with a smile on your face, and a song on your lips.

Nilanjana S. Roy is a writer and editor, whose books include The Wildings and Black River.

Juri Borah Borgohain’s novel Camouflage

Juri Borah Borgohain’s novel Camouflage

THE STORIES LEFT UNTOLD

When the unresolved traumas of a village become the story of a nation
—Aruni Kashyap

Assamese writer Juri Borah Borgohain’s novel Camouflage (2023) follows the life of Satyavarata and his mother, Neera, who live in a small village in upper Assam that has witnessed some of the most brutal and bloody consequences of the Ulfa insurgency in the early 1990s. When the novel opens, Satya has decided to leave his college education halfway as the ghosts from his past won’t stop haunting him. Lonely and sad, Satya returns home, to his mother’s horror. She wants him to finish his degree, get a job, and get out of the village in order to escape the horrific memories of the counter-insurgency operations conducted by the army when her family was brutally tortured. What happened to Neera and her family in the 1990s? Will Satya return to college and work towards a more stable and better life for himself and his family? These questions loosely form the crux of the story, but the main concerns of the author are bigger, sometimes even at the cost of storytelling and character.

Borgohain is interested in the intersection of human rights and storytelling: can a novel contribute to questions of justice. What role does literature play in bringing past, unresolved national traumas to the public domain? Borgohain’s work is brave and unflinching, macabre and disturbing.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. The powerful, violent scenes are so detailed and haunting that I had to skim through the pages on the first read, even though they were not gratuitous. Borgohain isn’t interested in mollycoddling and infantilising the reader. She wants the reader to know what happened, how certain stories have been left untold, the consequences of such unsaid, unresolved traumas, and at the end, that the story of this small village becomes the story of a people and a nation.

Aruni Kashyap is a writer, translator and an associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia, Athens, US.

GALVANISING CRY

Manoharrai Sardessai’s poems rallied Goan aspirations for statehood
—Vivek Menezes

Remember the dead
But do not mourn over them
Because yesterday’s jasmines have dried.
Forget not tomorrow’s birds.
Though the knife is coated with honey
Let not your tongue run over it.
The hook lies hidden inside the bait
Never forget it.
The new life is begging from you.
Give her in large handfuls.

(Manoharrai Sardessai, translated by Edith Melo Furtado)

Long after the dramatic “freedom at midnight” brought an end to colonialism across almost the entire immensity of South Asia, the tiny—but historically crucial—remnants of French and Portuguese India continued to fly European flags throughout the 1950s. There was one big difference: Paris kept negotiating with New Delhi, while cannily positioning France’s tractability in contrast to the obstinacy of António Salazar, the half-addled dictator in Lisbon who insisted Goa was and would always remain an inalienable part of Portugal. Few people realise the tricolore finally only came down in Puducherry in 1962, by which time Goa had already been annexed by the Indian Armed Forces, and was already seething with linguistic and identity politics around the question of absorption into Maharashtra.

Some of the most wonderful Konkani literature, poetry and popular music derives from this period, when the mother tongue was being slurred as a mere dialect, and the historical and cultural uniqueness of Goa was denied for short-sighted political gains. All that is in Zayat Zage (Arise! Awake!), an anthemic set of verses by the great Sorbonne-educated multilingual poet and scholar Manoharrai Sardessai (1925-2006), which have been remembered with great affection ever since they were published in 1964, and set to music by the charismatic singer Ulhas Buyao soon afterwards. Looking back from our 21st century vantage, it’s impressive to note just how successful this iconic rallying cry turned out to be, with its warnings about the responsibilities and challenges that were inextricably linked with freedom and democracy. These iconic outpourings galvanised the Goans, who came together to reject merger, then fought to enshrine Konkani as an official language of India, and eventually won statehood in 1987.

Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer, and the co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.

Siddalingaiah’s autobiography Ooru Keri

Siddalingaiah’s autobiography Ooru Keri

BLOOD ON OUR HANDS

Siddalingaiah offers insights into the nature of democratic participation
—Vivek Shanbhag

Siddalingaiah’s autobiography Ooru Keri (translated as A Word With You, World by S.R. Ramakrishna, Navayana, 2013) opens with a scene where he, as a young boy, is amused to see two men ploughing the land like bullocks with a yoke tied at their necks and a third man following them swinging a whip. The amusement turns to horror as he realises that one of the two men is his father. The humour with which this episode begins and the way it reveals the inhuman conditions of Dalits in our society is typical of Siddalingaiah’s searing low mimetic style. He is one of Kannada’s foremost poets and a leader of the Dalit movement in Karnataka. Ooru Keri depicts his journey from a Dalit colony to becoming a celebrated orator, poet and legislator and in doing so, illustrates the significance of democratic spaces.

It is unnerving to read Dalit autobiographies as they show blood on the hands of savarnas. However, the success of Dalit struggles, however small they are, provides certain models for self-assertion and the hope of a just society. Ooru Keri published in the early years of globalisation, offers valuable insights into the nature of democratic participation and public protests before the infusion of money into these activities. Narratives from the weakest sections are closer to reality in portraying a country’s democracy. Through a series of anecdotes and vivid details from his life, Siddalingaiah takes us through the changing political landscape of India in the latter part of the 20th century. Without spelling it out, he makes us realise the importance of independent media and institutions in a democracy.

Vivek Shanbhag is a Kannada author and playwright, whose most recent book is Sakina’s Kiss.

Periyar’s Penn Yen Adimaiyanaal

Periyar’s Penn Yen Adimaiyanaal

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL

Periyar’s fiery views on women show us the core values of democracy
—Salma

First, let me lay out what democracy means to me. Democracy exists, in day-to-day life, when you are able to live the life that you want to. When we read literature about the daily, ordinary struggles of people and communities, we are able to rethink what we take for granted, or help others overcome these struggles. We become empowered enough, and everyone becomes equal—that’s when we start feeling freer, more liberated. And what, really, is closer to the idea of democracy than this feeling?

Between the ages of 17 and 21, I came across many writers and books that led me to find the life I actually wanted to live. The first of such books I read, at 17, was Periyar’s Penn Yen Adimaiyanaal (Why Were Women Enslaved?) from the 1930s. It changed the way I looked at every single thing in my life. Families get us used to what they think culture, community and religion ought to be, without either side realising that these thoughts are seeded into us. Periyar’s words taught me to question everything we are socialised into believing. He reiterates that one should examine everything for oneself before accepting it as truth. This is such a basic but immensely empowering way to approach life. Till I read Periyar, especially Penn Yen Adimaiyanaal, I never knew there was a path outside of the one that had been set for me. I was under the assumption that family structures are unquestionable, that the woman’s role is at home, in the kitchen and in being a mother. What I have come to realise is that if you unthinkingly stay with what you believe is obvious, your life will mean nothing to you. Only when you start thinking through and questioning everything you have been taught, will you get in touch with your authentic self.

Salma (also known as Rajathi Salma) is a Tamil writer, activist and politician. Her 2004 novel Irandaam Jaamangalin Kadhai about Muslim women in rural Tamil Nadu was translated into English as The Hour Past Midnight in 2009. She received the Mahakavi Kanhaiya Lal Sethia award for poetry at the 2019 Jaipur Literature Festival.

As told to Vangmayi Parakala

Front cover of the book

Front cover of the book

WATCH OUT

Lakshman’s powerful autobiography tells us to beware of whom we vote for
—Hansda Sowvendra Shehkhar

The book that came to my mind immediately upon reading the word “democracy” is an autobiography that I read in translation, Samboli! Beware! by Lakshman, originally written in Kannada and translated into English by Susheela Punitha (Niyogi Books, 2018).

Democracy is often described as a system which is of the people, by the people and for the people. So, democracy is something that belongs to the people; is determined by the people; and the people reap, if any, the fruits of democracy. Ideally, “people” should imply all people in a democracy, and—ideally, again—democracy should touch each one in such a way that everyone is happy, satisfied and enjoying the fruits of it. But is that ever the case? Aren’t there still instances of certain people being considered as lesser people even in a democracy? What explains the inequality in a system that claims to see everyone as one?

The late Kannada writer Lakshman’s Samboli! Beware! might have an answer to such questions. Lakshman was Dalit, born into the Madiga caste. The people of the Madiga caste have traditionally been associated with working with leather—tanning, making footwear, and so on. In a society obsessed with purity and superiority of one’s caste, the Madiga people were considered to be untouchables. The word samboli means “beware” or “watch out”. During Lakshman’s childhood, the Madiga people had to call out “samboli” as they walked on the streets to warn other people of their presence so that those from castes higher than the Madigas may not be polluted by the touch or mere presence of the Madiga people.

The memories Lakshman has shared in Samboli! Beware! might have a lesson for our choice of representatives we elect: ones who not only speak of equality but actually practise it, and who—this might be a difficult wish—do not believe in the notions of purity and superiority.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes in English; and translates into English from Santali, Hindi, and Bengali. His books are My Father’s Garden, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, and The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey.

Also Read: Show a little kindness to lower the temperature

QUESTION ASSERTIONS

Gujarati writer Darshak showed us why resistance is crucial
—Salil Tripathi

Gujarat’s literary universe is filled with amazing works such as Narmadashankar Dave’s patriotic poetry, Govardhanram Tripathi’s aesthetic vision of an ideal village, Mohandas Gandhi’s constant self-examination in his search for the truth, Kanaiyalal Munshi’s vivid imagining of our past, and Umashankar Joshi’s humanist poetry. Yet, one novelist stands apart, with his modernist vision and commitment to democratic ideals. That is Manubhai Pancholi who wrote as “Darshak”. An educationist committed to rural life, Darshak wrote many books, including interpretations of Sanskrit classics, essays on village life and development, and Gujarat’s culture.

Two novels stand out: the three-part Jher To Pidha Chhe Jaani Jaani (We Imbibed Poison Knowingly, published from the 1950s to the 1980s) and Socrates (1974). Both are expansive in their outlook. The former is an intricate tale set in a village, where the protagonist is a universalist who hasn’t let his life in a small village limit his engagement with the forces that shaped the 20th century. Prescient in its anticipation of the authoritarianism of the Emergency, Socrates is a masterpiece. It tells the story of the provocative Greek philosopher who asks probing questions of his students and society about the meaning of governance, politics and life, at a time when the Athenians and Spartans are at war with each other. Socrates questions, questions, questions, compelling his students and listeners to re-examine their beliefs, and encourages the spirit of defiance and dissent to pursue truth—the cornerstone of liberal democratic ideals. I was a teenager when the novel was published, serialised in a Gujarati newspaper, and read it at the urging of my mother. It strengthened my belief in debate and the need to challenge, and made me realise how important it was to doubt and question assertion. As India is in the midst of another era of darkness with the old certainties vanishing, resistance is crucial and commitment to core democratic values is critical: and in Socrates, Darshak showed us the way.

Salil Tripathi is a writer and human rights advocate whose forthcoming book The Gujaratis is being published by Aleph.

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