Narrated with a dazzling, elegiac ferocity, When the Moon Shines by Day is Nayantara Sahgal’s most compelling and remorseless satire on the growing dangers of neo-fascist forces in contemporary India
Writers are strange creatures. They write with the door closed and rewrite with the door open. Small wonder, novels are often a double experience of knowing and unknowing, sort of confronting the barbaric arbitrariness of life. In a Bakhtinian sense, novels express not the fear of death, but the fear of life. So, imagine reading Nayantara Sahgal’s latest novel When the Moon Shines by Day in the darkroom. You are shivering with fear. I am aware. Be calm. Continue reading ‘this story of our times’. Once you are finished, the darkroom will be flooded with the translucent streams of illumination of the moonshine. This is a terribly and terrifyingly normal experience for most readers.
Now, you realise why Rehana, the main protagonist (alter-ego of Sahgal), and her three book-club friends—Nandini, Aruna and Lily—meet every week to discuss a book one of them has chosen. Perhaps reading a book enables us to regain the beauty of humanity and know the truth of dark times. That is why novels have to be written, Rehana’s father had said to her. Narrated with a dazzling, elegiac ferocity, When the Moon Shines by Day is Sahgal’s most compelling, remorseless satire on the growing dangers of neo-fascist forces in contemporary India. For someone who led the trailblazing award-return protest movement in the country, the novel is also about the possibilities and responsibilities of writers in protecting the sublime freedom of expression. Considering her privileged, elite background of the Nehru family, her protests against the excesses of her cousin India Gandhi’s Emergency and the violence of neo-fascists these days might sound like ironic and unexpected. Yet none can deny that Sahgal is a quintessential dissenter and one of the most celebrated chroniclers of the vicissitudes of post-colonial history of India.
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Extracts from her mother Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s prison diary in the novel are poignant and hit you in the face with an urgency to restore, repair and rehabilitate the ‘Idea of India’. You will be disappointed with this novel if you are looking for a typical post-modern story with authorial blips, ellipses, and digressions. Told in rhythmic and sonorous prose with an old-fashioned symmetric sensuous wit, it is pure, simple, unadulterated realism. And it is very visual, almost cinematic. So, enjoy reading this pint-sized novel with leisurely sips of herbal tea, as you will be infected with many subversive ideas.
The novel opens with Rehana’s historian father’s palimpsestic memories of the barbaric hordes of brutal violence led by Hitler-Mussolini in the 1930s when he was a student in London. Her father’s memory of Nehru in a black sherwani and black cap, speaking from a platform below Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar Square for peace and freedom, sounds eerily relevant these days. Those who think fascists are long dead are mistaken. They will be shocked to know that blood-thirsty hyenas are back with a vengeance. Are you surprised? Consider these not-so-fictional vignettes of Nazi merry-makings: Bharat mata ki jai has become a routine greeting; Rehana’s father’s history books mysteriously disappear from bookstores, curricula and libraries; art galleries are bombed; paintings are vandalised, painters’ faces blackened; people are lynched on mere suspicion of carrying a leather suitcase.
Does it sound familiar and predictable? It might be. Yet it appears so much like the ubiquitous Kafkaesque experience. That is why ‘there are lovers and there are orgasms’ in the novel. Further, speaking in the voice of Rehana, Sahgal also records the testimonies of how seemingly unconnected individual lives are affected by the savagery of neo-fascists. You are surprised by the violent and caustic reminder of perversion of the human soul by the manipulative power of hate and intolerance. This we gather from the entangled life histories of the main characters in the novel. Though the novel revolves around Rehana, diplomat Kamlesh, who is interested in excavating the hidden memories of Taj Mahal and Shah Jahan’s personal life, and Rehana’s German researcher friend Franz Rohner, haunted by his country’s Nazi past, are the primary narrators in the novel.
Line after line, page after page, Sahgal’s exquisitely curated characters’ inner lives in the novel become more familiar and more unsettling too. They are not resigned to their fate; they are seething with raging defiance and locutionary outbursts against the violence of fundamentalism of various sorts. In fact, Franz, who parodies all sorts of revolutions, rails against the very idea of purity, something all fascists love. “Purity”, Franz believes, “does not exist. It is a chimera, a dangerous, absurd imagining. No one and nothing is just one thing. Blood, culture, our past, our present, they are all mixed”.
However, the director of the “Directorate of Cultural Transformation” (DCT), the suave, smiling face of neo-fascism, is unconvinced by Franz’s rants. I don’t know any other writer who has shown the face of evil with such finesse and acuity. Officially, the director of this dystopian bureaucracy is in charge of racial purity, so the ghetto comes under him and he tries his best to keep minorities happy. He is so sensitive you can’t imagine “he can tell one flower’s scent from another with eyes closed, even one rose from another in his family garden”. But behind this affable façade, his ultimate goal is to create a Hindu master race. So, I must tell you this director is far more demonic than Adolph Eichmann, one of the major figures in the organisation of the Holocaust. Unlike Eichmann, the director of DCT neither lacks intentions nor critical reasoning. If Hannah Arendt were around, she would have revisited her thesis of banality of evil.
Consider the contrast here. In a mellifluously chilling tone, he tells Cyrus Batlivala, the owner of an art gallery, that “we cannot forget the pain of invasions, Mr. Batlivala…You may say we are now engaged in wiping out that painful memory and returning our nation by all possible means to its racial and religious purity. This is the cultural transformation we are bringing about”. So, no surprise that Rehana has grown up believing that fascism is not only an exceptional crime, but also the face of the radical evil that causes us to lust for power, to fantasise the very thing that dominates, exploits and eventually turns us into living corpses. Sadly, some of us enjoy narcissism of minor selfie differences, and find fascism more seductive and less repulsive. This is shocking and unprecedented.
It is almost an impeccable novel, except for minor niggles. On occasion, the contrived interiors of the baroque Ashwin hotel and ornate nostalgic conversations are suffocatingly high-culture and highbrow. This distances the novel from the lives of ordinary people, and disrupts its subversive potential. The references to Rehana’s domestic help Abdul, who prefers to be called Morari Lal for safety in the street, and her Dalit friend Suraj are condescendingly liberal tokenism. And the stylised details of debauchery of the personal life of Shah Jahan through select quotes from the exotic writings of foreign travellers, unfortunately, cockle the hearts of fundamentalist forces, who are hell bent upon savaging the artistic and aesthetic glories of the Taj Mahal.
The ending of the novel is wacky and frightening. When nothing works, you make mockery of the horrors of history. Like many of us, Franz in the end does not know whether to weep or marvel at our increasing innocence about the monster of religious rule. So, while dining with his wife Gerda and Rehana at the hotel, “he turned around the pages of his menu to soups. Looking around the table he enquired, ‘Shall we have vichyssoise to start with or’ turning another page ‘shall we start with shrimp’.” This is bizarre, unreal, but a truly believable cathartic experience, muttering sotto voce!
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, author and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. His recent book is titled Banaras and the Other, the first of a trilogy on religious cities in India