A Malayalam novel weaves fact and fiction to bring alive the dark world of Emergency

With the 50th anniversary of the infamous Emergency two years away, the novel ‘Raathri Muthal Raathri Vare’ offers fresh insight into the darkest phase of India’s democracy.
PK Sreenivasan, author of the novel Raathri Muthal Raathri Vare
PK Sreenivasan, author of the novel Raathri Muthal Raathri Vare
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The nation would observe the fiftieth year of Emergency in 2025, two years away from now. Though the Emergency was lifted, free and fair elections were held, and popular governments established, the bitter memory of those years when human rights were suspended and those in Opposition were put in fetters or done away with, lingers in the minds of all who witnessed it or have heard of it.

As the nation experiences another kind of Emergency and witnesses the emergence of an obnoxious hero worship and jingoism, which mocks the common man and his rights, the recounting of those dark nights when the police knocked on the doors at midnight and surveillance of the protesting human beings, assumes much importance.

PK Sreenivasan, writer and editor who has lived through the infamous Emergency era and has close associations with many of its victims, writes on the dark times in a well-researched novel which could be termed docu-fiction. It relies on facts and actual writings of the times and takes cues from many journals kept by the victims themselves or relies on court documents.

At a time when critics are crying over the death of the novel or the end of fiction, it is quite natural that the genre finds new styles of storytelling which are true to the times. When dealing with a historical incident, which has been described in detail and on which voluminous literature is available, the author would be perplexed to find the real form to deliver stories. Should it be pure storytelling or narration with the beginning, the middle and end, with a usual climax satisfying the taste buds of the classical fiction aficionados? Or should it be a historical narration with characters thrown in which would satisfy conventional readers? The genre of fiction is rife with such heroes and incidents, where actual events are rewritten with the help of the magic carpet of imagination. It feeds the restless minds with new kings and queens and princes and abducted princesses in a timeframe crafted by history.

There had been several takes on Emergency years (1975 June 25 - 1977 March 22) like the exhaustive Shah Commission report and All the Prime Minister's Men by Janardan Thakur. There are passages on the era in Jhumpa Lahiri’s and Nayanthara Sehgal’s work but most of them were focused on the national scene, where the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi subverted the Constitution for two years and jeopardised the lives of ordinary citizens. There is also a rich corpus of writings on popular uprisings like the JP movement and the Allahabad court verdict, which paved the way for the declaration of Emergency. In Malayalam, Andhakaranzhi by E Santhosh Kumar experiments with an anti-climax that nobody could have thought of.

In Raathri Muthal Raathri Vare (From Night to Night), PK Sreenivasan focuses on the visible real history delving deep into the life and times of people associated with the Emergency.  For the novel, the author has painstakingly researched nationally and locally to shed light on the perpetrators of the vicious crime and its many victims. The novel traces the Emergency years in a fresh light and features national leaders like Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. The book while tracing the Emergency years looks at the dark days in Kerala and its perpetrators and the victims.

The novel is told through the words of Kapilan, a Dalit reporter from the national capital. It also narrates the intellectual climate in Kerala during the time. It traces the restlessness among youth and in campuses, where politics was of paramount importance and unemployment was a big issue. The early seventies saw the rise of a bitter Naxalite movement, which acted as a resistance movement against the Emergency. As the youth were more vocal, they were hunted down, tortured, killed or made to disappear. The novel traces their life and afterlife, the growth of little magazines and the commoners, who resisted authoritarianism. The Rajan case, about the disappearance of an engineering college student, is reported with exhaustive quotes from court records. The novel also features unsung heroes like P Rajan, the first journalist to be arrested in Kerala during the Emergency, Radhakrishna Menon, Sarvodaya activist, Subash Chandra Bose, who run a little magazine called Street for two-and-a-half years, activist K Venu and poet Sachidanadan. However, it is scathing in its condemnation of K Venu as a real activist.

The novel is the fruition of five years of study and ardent research. The bigger national story is available from different sources, but it is difficult to organise details of events and persons, who did not play prominent roles. Sadly, while the post-Emergency Congress governments avoided discussions on the dark phase of democracy or ignored it altogether, the Left governments, which capitalised on the public outrage against the Emergency-era atrocities against Naxalites and other activists, shied away from giving credit to naxalites due to obvious political reasons.

Though the Rajan case and the role of Achutha Menon and K Karunakaran have been condemned, there was no self-examination of the role of Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI(M) in the resistance. As the Communist Party of India (CPI) was a part of the oppressive regime, they too tried to forget the blistering past with a shrug. Naxalites, who split into splinter groups, like the local Kerala Congress, also did not come to the rescue of the men and women associated with the resistance movement.

In the novel, Kapilan's reports and Editor K Balakrishnan’s views bring to life the issue of ideological divide among the parties. There is an incident in which a prominent political leader complained of not getting ‘A class’ treatment in the jail during his incarceration. Those with political connections got released while others languished in jail. Unfortunate were the ones like Rajan, who was brutally murdered in custody. The way his body was disposed of still remains a mystery.

A sterling part of the novel is the one related to the Rajan case, which continues to be a stark reminder of the Emergency-era atrocities. The case attracted wide attention and was marked by prolonged personal and legal fights led by his father Prof Eachara Warier. True events and litigations are woven into the thread of the novel with craft, which acts as an eye-opener for the public who may not be privy to the history of the Emergency or have not lived through it. Rajan’s habeas corpus case, when it came up before the Kerala High Court, revealed many skeletons and cost K Karunakaran the state’s chief ministership. The Rajan case also contributed to Left ideology gaining acceptance among the youth and students and the CPI(M) succeeded in capitalising on the issue.

Another high point of the novel is the depiction of small and marginal players in Kerala society during the dark era. Little magazines like Street together with its editor Subhash Chandra Bose, unsung heroes like Rajan, who was victimised by police, and his wife, filmmakers like PA Backer, TV Chandran, KP Kumaran are given a place in the narrative. Without this novel, many such personal histories would have been forgotten.

In the national arena, people like Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi loom larger than life. Their cruel and draconian brush with law and the impact their actions had on the lives of common people are narrated vividly. Kissa kursi ka case, related to banning of the controversial film, Dhirendra Brahmachari’s life, the infamous censorship or the chanting of twenty-point programme during the time are seen through the eyes of a sceptical bureaucrat Rangachary here.

While the novel presents historical and original actors as heroes or villains, the questions regarding truthfulness and genuineness of history becomes imperative. The Emergency literature is huge and vast and offers glimpses into the character of bigger leaders like Indira, Sanjay and Jayaprakash Narayanan.

But when it comes to lesser known people, who have a fan following like the mercurial K Venu, questions would emerge. Were many of the allegations against him real or fictional or an attempt at character assassination launched by the police and intelligence agencies? The novelist poses a question to the readers. It is the duty of history to verify the truth behind it…

Vinod Krishna, writer and critic, used the term data fiction to refer to the docu-fictional novel  because it involved the use of vast amounts of available information. The reality is that the narrative is historically correct and truthful though omissions would be there. When you are looking at history which is so near, you would be hamstrung by many prejudices and perspectives. But if it is about Queen Elizabeth 1, as in Kenilworth or Marthanda Varma, the king of Venad, the dependence on history narrows down and fiction takes precedence.

The point of view or the ideological mooring is another issue which would affect the creation. Like the second world war, when seen through the eyes of US citizens and the affected Jewish community, the Germans and the Japanese would differ in perspective. At a point in history when we are witnessing the same highhandedness and prostrating before censorship and jingoism our own perception would change or the present would colour the past.

By using the journalistic narration as the mode, PK Sreenivasan salvages the story from being a mere factual narration and invests it with a purpose and perspective. A real presentation of the unknown world of Emergency. Since it is glorification of the unknown men and women who suffered at the hands of a perverted authority, it strikes a chord with the readers who have experienced the Emergency or are fearful of the climate of authoritarianism, which is unfolding. It is a reminder of the past and a lesson for the future.

Though cast as a novel, it comes across as history of the times when censorship was in full force and the government machinery acted as a bulwark against common people. Though we know when the ordinary night would end, we don't know when dark hours of unproclaimed emergencies would end.

With the 50th anniversary of the infamous Emergency only two years away, Raathri Muthal Raathri Vare offers fresh insight into the characters, many events and issues of the darkest phase of India’s democracy.

The author is a writer and former Executive Editor of India Today Malayalam.

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