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Indian Lit: The Retelling of 1980s

By: Sai Diwan


Indian LiteratureAn age cannot escape history. And an age with history cannot escape literature. That is the story of the 1980s in India. It was the decade that commissioned the awakening of the Unnamed Genre. As its authors banished the past and overstepped the post colonial, Indian fiction flourished. Meanwhile, Indian reality traversed its own course in its submission to the ravages of Time. Thirty years later, this is the age that authors turn to- looking for a setting, a memory, the untold decade that is the 1980s. The age that advocated the future is now the throwback niche of 21st century authors. Is its philosophy lost in the folds of its own story?

The queer thing about history is that you are living someone else’s share of it. Events gain importance only when Time has had its way with them. For these to percolate into literature, they must spiral through history. Events become stories, and literature a visit into history. The author must find a time where he can indulge in the past, and yet sell its relevance to his readers. It is only when literature attempts to cross over to an age of surpassed sensibility that it encounters redundancy. The 1980s, however, is a bundle of recollections that readers can relate to. Stories of a past age therefore, are justified as long as they resonate with the readers.

Thus, when Anuja Chauhan pens her Those Pricey Thakur Girls against the setting of the 1980s, it may be thirty years too early for Daisy Dukes shorts, but it is not thirty years too late to write about the decade. The years indicate a long time span, but they are all encompassed in the same sensibility. The novel follows the path tread by the forerunners of the Unnamed Genre, its steps bolder, the ideas clearer. Street realism of Indian English is more vivid with the Roman script having been made to accommodate entire sentences in Hindi. ‘Tab se girls reject kar raha hain, he has it coming.’ (Chauhan 16). The Indian culture is kept alive through the quintessential quibble over the Undivided Hindu Family Law, and Binni’s hysterics for her one-sixth hissa. It is then severely contrasted with the unabashed sexual remarks, some taking a rather crude shape as the lust of fifteen year Sateesh. ‘What am I supposed to do till then, huh? Jerk off to pictures of you at your sisters’ wedding?’ (Chauhan 283) Thus the reflections are not the relapse into a comfort zone of another time, but developments along the continuum of the same sensibility.

As Tavleen Singh signs off her masterpiece Durbar, the years from the late 1970’s shine relevance through the edifice of 2012 along the single compelling ray of that last line, ‘It was with him that it all began.’ (Singh 312). The Nehru Gandhi dynasty that forms the subject of Singh’s political memoir continues to dominate the Indian political scene in its fourth generation. The 1980s was a tumultuous time for the nation, the shock of an emergency, the slaughter of the President who called it, the massacre of the community whose member killed her: the chains had begun to come undone, one thunderous clank after another. Of this unrest was born the inept prince of Indian politics, the golden boy who could but shine, Rajiv Gandhi. Durbar is Tavleen Singh’s retelling of the 1980s as a journalist who roamed the social circles of the Gandhi’s. As India still suffers the aftermath of frivolous politics played by generations of this dynasty, a chronicle about its beginning is as appropriate as can be. India’s June 2013 accusation of Pakistan providing aid in reviving Sikh militant separatist forces has its history in the pages of Durbar. ‘I found out from a senior police that they had caught a group of Sikh terrorists who claimed they had been trained to use automatic weapons and make bombs by Pakistani army officers in Faisalbad Jail.’ (Singh 222). Events of today are the consequences of the decisions and happenings as recorded in Durbar.

Fiction has crafted, and non-fiction recorded the story of the 1980s. Readers enjoy both genres and easily transport themselves into the past through either vehicle. But the question arises, why is it that authors feel the need to revisit the years gone by? Their writing is accepted due to relevance, but what is the inherent need that calls for the effort of making it so? Why go back when Juliet bai’s ‘Apple makhan toast’ (Chauhan 33) has upgraded to a much better version, with a proud iFamily of its own to boast of? Why must authors plug their matured understanding of the genre into the buried past? Perhaps it is more meaningful to reconstruct the days gone by with the wisdom that they have harnessed. For literature to truly reflect the state of its society, its author must have an opinionated stance about the happenings. Often, it is easier to weave a story into conclusions that already have been drawn. The writer adds the personal touch of having lived through it to the objective results of a particular happening. The recollections are then equivalent to a third person omniscient narration. The writer roots his story in empirical understanding, and yet is an outsider for having circumvented chronological boundaries. Such a writer is truly equipped to tell the tale that has been waiting to be narrated.

Anuja Chauhan, when asked as to the reason for pitching Those Pricey Thakur Girls in the 1980s said, ‘I think that only with the wisdom of hindsight can you write that kind of stuff. Because if you were writing in the ’80s, you’d have assumed that Doordarshan was powerful… booking a trunk call after 10.30 and all that… these are things that only make sense because you have the benefit of hindsight.’ The time passage advantage allows her to critique the effects of the liberalisation under the cover of anticipatory comments by her characters. ‘This Sunday he said that all this excitement around the opening of the economy is misplaced, that it’s gonna split the country even more sharply, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, and in ten years’ time we will end up with two entirely separate Indias- a tiny one that will be a clone of the first world and a massive one that will be sitting on the gutters.’ (Chauhan 211).

While Chauhan is brazen in her attitude of taking jabs at the government, the book in itself is a clever critique of the Indian society. Anji’s mindless response to Dylan’s insight is an indication of the inertia of indifference that kept the people from their nation. ‘I don’t know. I’m all for opening up. We’ll get Coke in India again. Imagine that.’ (Chauhan 211) BJ’s walled garden is a clear manifestation of the safety net of ignorance that the Indians had thrown over themselves in the wake of a new dawn. The Thakurs don’t just live, but indulge in the silly nitwits of their personal life while an entire community is dragged to its funeral pyre. Chachiji’s delirium about the Pushkarni taking possession of her body, Binni’s obsession of getting her “fair share” of the property, Gulab’s gymming fad all seem like such giddy nothings in the larger frame of the picture.

This disconnect is exacerbated in its representation in Singh’s Durbar. Singh paints Delhi of the 1980s in a discord of dual identity. It was the political capital that announced such changes that shook the entire nation. And then it was the Delhi of the social elite that was a delirious cacophony of high tea and soirees. ‘While people in Delhi’s drawing rooms, including Rajiv and Sonia and their friends, lived through the Emergency years blissfully oblivious to the new political realities that the suspension of democracy created, most Indians were learning in different ways to understand the meaning of repression.’ (Singh 25) The paradox lies in the fact that it was those social circles that the Gandhi’s frequented that were most removed from the horrifying effects of their rule.

The debacle of the 1980s is a tale that deserves to be told. The literature of the age may have foregone its events, but the suppressed cries must find voice. The Emergency was a democratic miscarriage, and from then on it all fell apart. The dictatorship of Indira Gandhi was at its tyrannical peak in the pre liberalisation era. The people were allowed only that life that the government may spare. And the government was everywhere. ‘Mrs. Gandhi believed that Doordarshan’s only purpose was a vehicle of government propaganda and during the Emergency, when she became a dictator, this reached unimaginable heights.’ (Singh 136) In the fantastical recount of the age, Chauhan is bold in the connections that she asks the readers to make. Desh Darpan is an obvious parody of Doordarshan, the logo being accused of resembling ‘a massive unblinking eye- a conspiracy to mass hypnotize the country into mindless submission.’ (Chauhan 39).

Of those that revolted, the most blazing attack was by the Sikhs. When Indira Gandhi met her end through a bullet fired by an enraged Sikh, it called for the worst communal riots that India had seen. The unmistakable similarity between the horrors described by Chauhan in Those Pricey Thakur Girls and the actual anti-Sikh riots that shook India in 1984 leave gaps that Indian readers know rather well how to fill. Hardik Motla’s inciting slogan ‘Blood for blood’ happens to match the provoking statements that Sajjan Kumar is accused of having made. Tavleen Singh is more blatant in her approach in Durbar. Not only does she pin the same cry on H.K.L. Bhagat in the political wrath on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, but also does she expose readers to the naked horrors of wronged Sikhs of 1984. ‘We were about to stop to find someone to ask for further directions when we saw a truck filled with blindfolded Sikhs lying prostrate in the back. Their turbans had been taken off and used to blindfold them and their long hair fell in untidy coils. Their hands were tied behind their backs. They lay one on top of each other like dead bodies.’ (Singh 165)

There is something so devastating about Durbar. It lunges at the truth and yanks it into the present age in all its majestic virginity. There is something so nimble about Those Pricey Thakur Girls. It coaxes a tumultuous age out of an innocent tangle between D for Dylan and D for Dabbu. And there is something about that age. Something so potent, so furtive, that it must find expression. In finding expression, it relives. What it retells reflects, reshapes, and that goes far beyond living again. For reliving has a charm, but living again has but stagnancy.



Works Cited

  1. Chauhan Anuja. Those Pricey Thakur Girls. Noida: Harper Collins Publishers, 2013.
  2. Heyne Eric. “Where Fiction Meets Nonfiction: Mapping a Rough Terrain.” Narrative. Vol. 9, No. 3 (2001): 322- 333. Web. 5 September 2013.
  3. Nanavati U. M., Kar Prafulla C. eds. Rethinking Indian English Literature. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2000.
  4. Singh Tavleen. Durbar. Noida: Hachette India, 2012.
  5. 20 August, 2013.Read  PART ONE


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