Hridayesh Joshi’s novel, the first in recent years on the Naxal conflict, reads almost like a granular report of the battlefield as it probes the meaning of love and war, life and democracy

Joshi's novel, with its unusual female protagonist, seems to grow organically from those war-torn, blood-soaked forests. Credit: Raksha Kumar

Joshi’s novel, with its unusual female protagonist, seems to grow organically from those war-torn, blood-soaked forests. Credit: Raksha Kumar

Hridayesh Joshi’s Lal Lakeer (“Red Line”) deals with Bastar, the Naxal cadres and the state’s brutal response. It is the latest Hindi novel to consider socio-political issues, following three well-received 2015 novels, Alka Saraogi’s Jankidas Tejpal Mansion, Sanjeev’s Faans and Akhilesh’s Nirvasan. Those novels explored contemporary crises such as farmers’ suicides, the impacts of globalisation and the issue of cultural roots.

Lal Lakeer is the first Hindi novel in recent years written by somebody who has lived in the war zones of the Naxal and anti-Naxal operations. Joshi has the advantage of knowing his terrain intimately. He has been a TV journalist for over fifteen years, and has extensively covered leftist politics. His reports on Bastar have won him awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award for excellence in journalism. He has personally interviewed key Naxal leaders such as Ganeshan, Kosa and Kishanji. Lal Lakeer is his first novel, although not his first book – he is also the author of Kedarnath – Tum Chup Kyon Rahe Kedar?, about the 2013 Kedarnath disaster.

A complex reality

Hridayesh JoshiLal LakeerHarper Hindi, 2016, Rs 299

Hridayesh Joshi
Lal Lakeer
Harper Hindi, 2016, Rs 350

Naxalism evokes very different reactions from people, depending on their ideology. For the Indian state, it is the greatest menace to the country. For social activists and NGOs of progressive leaning, it is a genuine struggle against the exploitation and high handedness of the Indian police system. For a few dogmatic intellectuals of ultra-left leaning, it is a war against the parliamentary democracy that only protects the interest of the bourgeois. While the government and its agencies claim that Naxalism blocks “development” and deprives the masses of their basic needs and rights, a number of social thinkers feel that the Naxal insurgency prevents the loot of rich jungles and hills by multinational players.

For Joshi, all such simplistic formulations end when the story of Naxalism reaches Bastar. What is a political position or an intellectual debate in Delhi turns into a very complex and fierce battle between a mighty and corrupt state versus a half-baked army hiding in forests and living among villagers. It would not do justice to Lal Lakeer to say that it tries to identify the multiple issues that emerge from the circumstances in Bastar. It would be more true to the novel to say that it grows organically from the struggle in those forest villages, and to point out that in so doing, a number of ironies surface that reveal how a war being fought in the name of justice, equality and the welfare of the people is in fact dehumanising everybody involved.

Certainly, Joshi takes a side. He is a “pro-people” writer and journalist. But this “pro-people” stance is for him not merely a “politically correct” position. This is clear from the very opening of his novel, which presents two starkly oppositional scenes. The first is an encounter, really a sanctioned murder, of Naxals by the police, in which two people are killed. The second is that of a “Janatana Adalat,” a so-called people’s court, in which zealots of the Maoist party leadership hang an honest and innocent man. It is not only the compulsion of craft but also of political and authorial sensibility that Joshi chooses to open his novel in this thought-provoking way.

A struggle against all forces 

The opening of Lal Lakeer is full of narrative possibilities.

And Joshi the novelist takes a most surprising path. His female protagonist Bheeme is the daughter of Hedia, the innocent man hanged by the people’s court. In the hands of a less sensitive writer, this fact could have been used as an excuse for Bheeme to become anti-Naxal in the story. But Joshi avoids this expected route and instead takes Bheeme’s transformation to a deeper, more complex level. Bheeme’s loss, her acute understanding of her own society and a very deep sense of duty turns her into a leader who attempts to forge a democratic – almost a Gandhian – way in the midst of this blood-soaked terrain where everybody is trying to find solutions through murder and coercion.

Joshi does not portray this idealistic choice as an easy one. Bheeme faces the worst of the state’s repression, is attacked by the Naxals and parts with her lover over an ideological battle that he cannot win and she refuses to lose. Out of these conflicts emerge several parallel stories and sub-themes, including a love story where the girl is a rape survivor – an idea virtually unheard of and unexpressed in contemporary Indian literature or society.

Hridayesh Joshi. Credit: Twitter

Hridayesh Joshi. Credit: Twitter

When poetry meets prose 

In recent years, a number of novels have been written on the old Naxal movement. Alka Saraogi’s Jankidas Tejpal Mansion is an effort to understand why the Naxalbari movement of the ’70s failed. Dileep Simeon, writing in English, did this in a more focused manner with his novel Revolution Highway. Even Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland looks at the Naxal issue. Apart from these recent books on the historical Naxal movement, a great amount of poetry from the ’70s through the ’90s has been shaped by these ideas. Indeed, based on the idea of changing the world, a very romantic, rich and sublime style of poetry has emerged.

Joshi’s novel shows what happens when that “dream of poetry” is refracted in the reality of the prose. As market forces dictate the agenda of governance, and all kinds of anti-communal, anti-exploitation groups – Gandhian, socialist, Leftist, ultra-Leftist or Ambedkarite – are lumped together under the category of “Naxal,” Lal Lakeer is a journey into a war zone where the collateral damage is beyond imagination.

The power of Joshi’s novel lies in its evocation of that most contested term – “authenticity.” It is easy to recognise the characters and events, so much so that the novel almost “feels” like a granular, detailed report of ground zero. Ultimately, we realise that our great country – our Bharat Mata, our “jai Hind,” our “saare jahan se achchha Hindostan hamara” – is a vast and varied land where the “idea of India” works variably or does not work at all, where the right to equality guaranteed by our constitution faces serious challenges.

What is the Gandhian way?

But what is the way forward in such a situation?

It is not necessarily the burden of the novelist to show the way, but it is a challenge Joshi accepts nonetheless. He is clearly of the opinion that only a democratic struggle can change things. Naxal violence only justifies the state violence that is far greater, in both nature and power. The only realistic way is the Gandhian way.

But Gandhi poses a problem here. Is the Gandhian approach only a strategy, a means of putting pressure through satyagrahahartal and distributing flowers, or is it a way of life?

We can only raise the question – and hope that instead of presenting readymade or dogmatic answers, the characters brought to life by Joshi, the warriors in the war zone – Bheeme, Ramdeva, Bishan – will discover the real solutions, and come closer to showing us the meaning of love and war, life and democracy.

Lal Lakeer is published by Harper Hindi, INR 350, 300 pages.

Priyadarshan is a Hindi novelist, critic and journalist. He has published nine books, including 2 short story collections and one poetry collection. He has also translated a number of authors into Hindi, including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. He currently works with NDTV India.