Nayantara Sahgal’s new novel attempts to give us a warning of the ominous times ahead
In her 92nd year, Nayantara Sahgal is among the oldest living novelists of India. After When the Moon Shines by Day (2017), she is back with another novella, The Fate of Butterflies, which captures the ongoing political scene in India. Set in a not-so-distant future, it narrates a dystopian tale about an India that wants to erase existing identities and establish a new order.
Its protagonist is a ‘scholar’ Prabhakar who has written a book suggesting ways to ensure “a complete about-turn in a society’s ways of thinking”. It can be done only when the foundations of India are “done away with”, and the “hallowed images like the Buddha deep in meditation, the Edicts of Ashoka preaching peace and righteousness” have been removed from public imagination. It requires the repudiation of even the Gandhian principles of non-violence.
Prabhakar has drawn his inspiration from the ancient state of Sparta that had ‘abolished childhood’. Young children were removed from the family and sent to camps where they were given war training. While Prabhakar has no apparent political leanings, his ideas are lapped up by Mirajkar, named Master Mind in the book. He is a part of the establishment and wants Prabhakar to join their ‘policy group’. Mirajkar believes that universities needed to be purged of “Communist and other atheist teachings”.
Though any political party is not named in the novel, one doesn’t need any signpost to identify the references Sahgal is indicating at. There are gangrapes, cow-related violence, paeans to the ‘Pitrabhoomi (fatherland)’, besides lavish parties attended by foreign dignitaries.
The narrative often delves into history, draws various parallels of the present situation with historical events like the invention of dynamite by Alfred Nobel and Bikini Island where the H-bomb was exploded. There is also a long account of the American journalist, Vincent Sheean, who had witnessed the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Some of these intersperse well with the narrative, some go off the mark.
However, as much the novella aspires to be a political statement—a warning about the ominous times ahead—it doesn’t make for an engrossing fiction. The characters barely convince. The story rarely exists. All it has are a few conversations about politics, and some violent incidents. The mere inclusion of political references doesn’t make a political novel. It can be a pamphlet, but maybe not a work of art. Writing a political novel is a demanding exercise in fiction writing. A slight slip and the text begins appearing as an empty slogan.
In the last few years, in an attempt to offer a political commentary about the ongoing incidents, the narrative of several Indian novels has been found wanting in many respects. It’s not that their vision or political propositions were flawed, but perhaps in their overzealousness to take a political stand, these novelists overlooked the compromises their art made in the process. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is one such instance, a novel that marked the triumph of politics over art. Yet, Roy’s work had some redeeming moments; Sahgal’s novella, except some instances, doesn’t make convincing reading in fiction.
She was among the first writers who had returned their Sahitya Akademi award protesting against the murder of writers by vigilantes. She is the foremost and among the most respected voices of contemporary Indian literature. A few months back, her lecture in Maharashtra had to be cancelled at the last minute following opposition by some fundamentalists. Her continuing voice of dissent comes as an assurance both for Indian literature and democracy. Such writers are the custodians of the nation’s consciousness. The grateful reader salutes the spirit of her pen, but cannot conceal the disappointment with her new work.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla