Monday, October 14, 2019

Mirror of Justice: Reviewing Aditya Sudarshan’s The Outraged

The Outraged, authored by Aditya Sudarshan, is a novel in two parts. The first, “Times of Ferment”, was published in 2018, and the second, “Times of Strife” in the subsequent year. The Outraged ought to become essential reading for all Indians familiar with the English language, because Sudarshan skillfully addresses, with great philosophical depth, the questions that currently plague the Indian republic.

Set among the cinema hopefuls who populate Yari Road in Bombay’s Versova district, the novel plots the three distinct trajectories employed by three characters drawn from the so-called English-speaking middle class. Emphasizing reason and the role it can play in liberating the country from the grip of godmen and other social ills, is Abhishor Frances, a film-maker, who chooses to lead what he and his companions see as a liberal revolution which will free the country from its problems. Maithili Krishna, on the other hand, surrenders herself to the attraction of a godman, while Sasha offers a more nuanced option, a middle ground as it were, between the two routes adopted by these members of the film community.

Locating the novel among cinema professionals in Yari Road is a brilliant move because it neatly captures the conundrum currently facing the Indian middle class. To begin with, while ostensibly English-speaking and middle class, Sudarshan highlights the various groups that constitute this section of society. Not all of them can speak English with equal ease, nor do they inhabit a similar cultural world. Rather, large segments of this group are only recent entrants, and the resulting lack of a common cultural world sows the seeds for the many disagreements that populate the pages of this novel. Indeed, it is these disagreements, among the various, largely North Indian, characters that depict distinct types of the Indian middle class, that give flesh to the narrative arc of The Outraged.
Perhaps the relationship between Bollywood and the ongoing collapse of the Indian republic is the reason why The Outraged focuses on the community on Yari Road. Even though they seek to make independent, meaningful films, the members of this fraternity must necessarily feed the beast that is Bollywood.  The novel throws up vignettes of the dirty underbelly of this industry, which is India’s claim to international fame. However, the novel does more than simply speak of the abuse of women, and men, which constitutes part of Bollywood culture. In keeping with the philosophical musings that animate this book, The Outraged also points to the manner in which, fed on a steady diet of films that glorify gangsters, consumerism, and the growing cult of the item number, the Indian population, or at least that segment that consumes these offerings, has actually lost the ability to discern what it is that constitutes the life of a healthy society and republic. Via its narrative, The Outraged affirms that the film industry, which had the opportunity to animate the life of the republic, has outright failed it and indeed contributed to the crisis that India is staring at in the face.

The film world of Bombay is not the only community that this novel depicts. Firmly within its crosshairs is the larger Indian middle-class that sees itself as liberal. Through the character profiles, Sudarshan speaks several home truths. That the liberalism that Indians believe they embody is, in fact, nothing more than a superficial performance of Western manners that masks the traditional injustices that the Indian polity has sustained and continues to sustain. Liberalism in India, this novel suggests, is a cultural performance, rather than the lived commitment to a philosophical practice. It is as a result of not fully comprehending or living within a genuinely liberal framework that some collaborators in Abhishor’s revolution utilize strategies that ensure that this movement comes to a grinding halt. Similarly, it is because Indian liberalism was/is about  natives asserting their caste cultures in western guise, that characters like Maithili, who come from pedigrees that we would identify as embodying the best of the Nehruvian secular elite, eventually succumb to the charisma of smooth-talking godmen. This collapse comes about, it appears, because these elites have never critiqued native dominant caste traditions, or indeed, Hinduism itself. As Abhishor, seemingly channeling Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s critique, points out, “as long as we do not attack the core doctrines of Hinduism, we cannot rid ourselves of the God-man menace. The two are completely related.” 
But neither is Abhishor Frances, the archetypal liberal, free from fault in Sudarshan’s telling. The author demonstrates the terrifying violence that lies at the heart of the modernist, and therefore liberal, project. Once convinced of the truth of their cause, the liberals in this novel occupy the moral high ground, and then begin to descend into a chaos not dissimilar to the blood feuds that mark most modernist utopian revolutions. Seeing the world in black and white, people are either good, or bad, and if bad are prosecuted by a ferocious public opinion, that forces even the state and the forces of law and order to upset the rule of law. Indeed, one senses in Sudarshan’s novel that the outrage of the chattering classes and the fury which descends on the scapegoat is often no different from the recent lynching of Christians, Muslims, and Dalits that have the same classes muttering in shock.

Into this fraught universe the figure of Sasha cuts an almost Buddhic figure, though I am inclined to believe that Sudarshan sees this protagonist as a Christ figure: “…this strange young man with shining eyes and a haunted past, who aimlessly walked the broken pavements, yet went like an arrow to the broken people and could not seem to count the cost”. Sasha’s conversations with Abhishor and his friends, where he suggests that liberalism and secularism will simply not be able to halt the tide of terror, sound remarkably like the critique that the Catholic church has systematically mounted since at least the rise of communism. Sasha offers a Catholic critique of modernity and the liberal project of equality by pointing out that people are “equal only before God, and not in any other sense”. While defending the value of the spiritual against the rage of the rationalists, and even making a place for god-men and mystics in a society, Sasha also affirms that, “it matters a great deal what God one believes in”.

Those used to fast-paced novels will find reading The Outraged somewhat taxing. But this is the strength of the novel because it’s easy pace, with no apparent direction, offers one the time to contemplate its philosophical musings. And these pertain, not just to the on-going collapse of the Indian republic, but also the larger crisis within modernity. The Outraged ought to be a welcome addition to Indian bookshelves because it is a novel that engaged in an auto-critique and is thus a rare gem among this country’s literary offerings.

The Outraged: Times of Ferment, Aditya Sudarshan, 2018, Rupa, New Delhi.
The Outraged: Times of Strife, Aditya Sudarshan, 2019, Rupa, New Delhi.

(A version of this text was first published in Scroll on Aug 10, 2019.)

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