Saturday, June 24, 2006

An Iron Harvest

By CP Surendran

The ‘Rajan case’ as it came to be known, rocked Kerala in the ‘70s. It was the emergency, Rajan was a student of REC Calicut, a hot bed of Naxalite sympathizers and one day he was taken into police custody and never seen again. It is supposed that he was tortured in police custody and killed. His father Eechara Varrier waged a courageous battle against the authorities, pressing for information about his son and filing a case against the government when the emergency was finally lifted. The case led to the resignation of the chief minister Karunakaran (who was the home minister at the time of the incident) but the police officers who were in charge of the police camp where Rajan was taken were prosecuted but later acquitted.

This incident forms the kernel of Surendran’s novel. He describes a time in Kerala where Naxalites had fired the popular imagination, with students rallying behind an ideology that promised revolution and a changing of the old guard. It is an unrecognizable Kerala today. When Surendran describes feudal landlords exploiting tribal labour mercilessly, it seems like he is talking about today’s Bihar. Just goes to show how much Kerala has changed since the ‘70s. It is also the time of the emergency – a strange and troubling time. Trains run on time but midnight knocks are common as are forced sterilization drives.

The story is of John, an engineering college student, the leader of Red Earth, a Naxalite group that beheads cruel landlords and raids police stations. John is as close to a Che Guevara as one can get – the beard, the intellectualism, the on-the-run life he chooses. John’s friend Abe is the Rajan who disappears. It drives John further into the arms of the revolution that he is intelligent enough to recognize is not going to come to pass. John and his fellow-revolutionaries go deeper into the beautiful forests of Wynad where it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize friend from foe. A parallel story of Abe’s father, Sebastian, runs through the novel as he attempts to get justice for his son’s disappearance. Sebastian is the character you sympathise most with – his is an intense personal grief that hard to ignore by even the most hardened police officials. The DIG Raman, the man responsible for Abe’s death is portrayed as a sadist, taking pleasure in the torture he inflicts on his helpless prisoners.

Surendran’s tale is fast-paced and engrossing. As the police web tightens around John and his fellow-revolutionaries, there are events set in motion that work towards helping Sebastian. The darkness of the emergency is lifted and Sebastian can hope for the courts to grant him recourse. But it is already too late for John. His hopes for the revolution are fading along with his life.

It is a first novel and Surendran has chosen a subject that is obvious he is intimate with. He writes of the lure of leftist ideology in the time of fascism. It is an alluring concept, more so because of the juxtaposition. An interesting read of a time that no one should ever forget – when we came so close to losing so much of what we take for granted today.

Surendran’s language evokes a lush green and wet Kerala. He does not use language to mesmerize like Arundhati Roy, but in his quiet way he paints beauty beautifully. Yet he uses English quite self-consciously, translating a lot of the Malayalam that Roy uses without compunction in her English. That is a bit unnecessary and takes away from naturalness.

I’ve always enjoyed CP Surendran’s columns. And An Iron Harvest is definitely one of the better Indian novels in English I have read in a long while.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A drizzly morning in the rain forest of Taman Negara. Remote, lovely and calming.

Black Swan Green

By David Mitchell

I knew Cloud Atlas would not be the last novel I would be reading of David Mitchell. Black Swan Green is his latest and is really quite different from Cloud Atlas, though there is a character from Cloud Atlas here too. Mitchell seems to love carrying forward characters from one book to another. A slightly endearing trait, I find.

BSG is a book much narrower in scope than Cloud Atlas. It is a simple narration of a 13 year old boy with a stammer and a skill for poetry. It traces a single year in the life of this boy Jason Taylor, the year of the Falklands war. Through him we live his life filled with all the angst of a pre-teen boy with a stammer in a school full of bullies. It does not help that he is a poet, a skill that is seen as so ‘gay’. And that his parents are in a relationship that is not so healthy and that his sister, who was a hated character till recently, is now going away to college.

It’s an uncomplicated tale of the complications in Jason’s 13th year. The Belgian émigré, the gypsies who come into town and the tangled emotions girls as a species generates allow for excitement in the boy’s life.

Through this straightforward narration, Mitchell manages to make Jason Taylor a fairly interesting character, parts of whom are recognizable in any 13 year old boy. BSG makes for a compelling read, mainly because of Jason Taylor’s wry and vibrant voice. I am sure to continue reading Mitchell.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Originally uploaded by paronair.

One of my most cherished holidays - Angkor Wat and Cambodia. A lovely country unaffected by the unabashed tourism. I guess camera-wielding tourists are preferable to the horrors of war.