At 90, Nayantara Sahgal stands tall among writers in India for her courage of conviction and belief in the secular spirit of the nation enshrined by the leaders who brought it into being. Both of these qualities are abundantly evident in her new novella, When the Moon Shines By Day, published recently by Speaking Tiger (Hardcover, ₹399), which reads like a chilling commentary on our time.
Although only 167 pages long, the story is packed with ideas, most of which Sahgal highlighted two years ago when she returned the Sahitya Akademi award in the wake of the murder of rationalist MM Kalburgi. Setting an example with her symbolic gesture, she opened the floodgates of dissent among intellectuals across the country, writing in a range of languages, who joined her in returning their awards to protest against vicious attacks on India's age-old tradition of debate, discussion and dissent.
The silencing of anti-establishment voices, brutally brought home by the recent murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh for instance, is captured with a lacerating irony by the title itself. Deceptively poetic, the phrase is evoked by the protagonist, Rehana, to explain to her friends her reason to continue working with Asians Against Torture, a human-rights organisation: "Because people are tortured for refusing to agree the moon shines by day and the sun by night..." The barbaric premonitions this admission opens up are borne out by the plot, which, in spite of its episodic fragments, conjures up a vision of pure hell.
The India that Sahgal sets her story in reminds us, with alarming familiarity, of the one we live in the here and now — except it's descended into a worse dystopia. The trappings of anarchy are cemented ever more firmly: books are banned, paintings destroyed and people get killed on the suspicion of carrying a suitcase made of cowhide, presided over by the all-pervasive eye of the Director of Cultural Transformation.
The latter's views on the vandalism of history are unambiguous. "We cannot forget the pain of invasions," he informs a gallery owner on hearing a complaint of rampant hooliganism at a show, "the Turks, Mongols, Mughals, foreigners who interrupted our Hindu history." Wiping out "that painful memory and returning our nation by all possible means to its racial and religious purity" is, in his book, a matter of "plain justice".
If such passages strike as too unadorned, they also ring uncomfortably true, hitting home the heady reality of conflicts and confusions contemporary India is immersed in. Much like Sahgal, earlier this year, Prayaag Akbar brought alive the crises of being alive in this moment with a terrifying clarity in his novel, Leila. In a keenly-imagined dystopia, towards which present-day India seems to be inexorably hurtling, Akbar framed a story of an outcaste searching for her daughter and husband for nearly two decades, who were wrenched from her by the might of a police state, bent on preserving religious purity by condemning intermarriage.
In Sahgal's story, terror percolates into the genteel drawing-room conversations of Rehana and her friends, who gather for a book club, holding on to the vestiges of art and literature at a time neither can provide much consolation. Characters like Kamlesh, a bureaucrat with an interest in Mughal history, especially in the alleged depravities of Shah Jahan, including his incestuous relationship with his daughter, or Franz Rohner, a German historian of the Third Reich, act as foils to their title-tattle. The aroma of pekoe orange blossom tea at the ladies' book club gets fouled by the stink of violence, repeated sagas of bloodlust and massacre.
Exposed to the horrors of a dictatorial regime through her work with victims of torture, Rehana is the fiery conscience that shines through the darkness in which the novel is plunged. Even as she witnesses her lover Zamir's turbulent predicament for his religion and 'subversive' writing, the disappearance of her father's books on medieval history from public holdings, and the bottomless cruelty of everyday life, she manages to retain a humane curiosity about the world around her.
Rehana's friendship with Rohner is Sahgal's point of entry into larger historical questions about the fate of totalitarian regimes, comparing these with the ones in Europe of the 1930s and 40s. Such parallels may appear a bit stretched and Sahgal's detour into the past somewhat didactic, but the timing of the novel ameliorates such aesthetic grudges. In spite of the rough edges and choppy jump-cuts, Sahgal's wit and humanity glitters occasionally, especially in Rohner's bawdy wisecracks.
"Are they not the man who mounts his woman with no please-may-I, gallops to glory, rolls of his mount and snores himself to sleep?" he says, memorably, on being asked his opinion about revolutions, saving a punch for the end. "And the woman? Ah, the woman! She lies awake plotting how to kill him."
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