Rohit Handa on his “Comrade Sahib”, a novel on the Naxalbari movement
In an age when novels are produced at the speed of cookies rolling out of a bakery oven, the life history of “Comrade Sahib” is quite atypical. It is a novel Delhiite Rohit Handa wrote as a sprightly young journalist working for a national newspaper in New Delhi in the summer of 1972. Today, Handa is 72 himself, and is talking about it as a book just released. With a full-throated laugh, the affable economist lets out the tale behind the tale which took so many decades to get between the covers.
“I wrote it in mid-1972. It took me just three or four months to complete it, I then sent it to a publisher in England but it was rejected. I went on to write another novel which got published and somehow ‘Comrade Sahib’ never came out of the closet. Only a year and a half ago, I got down to brushing it up due to the doggedness of some of my friends, but I am happy I did so,” he says. “Also, one has to understand that publishing was never as organised as it is today. Local publishers were just holes-in-the-wall kind of operations in Daryaganj.”
The subject of the 267-pager, a product of Genesis Publishing, is that of the Naxal movement of the 1960s, dwelling on issues that have refused to die even today.
“Look at the newspapers today, the Government has not been able to address the issue of Naxals, it was Bengal then, it is in many States today,” he points out.
Handa’s ‘Comrade Sahib’ is Pratap, known in the family and to friends as Peter, an alumnus of Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College. The only son of a soon-to-be-ambassador to West Germany, Peter, much to the ire of his westernised parents used to fine wine, manicured lawns and French dressing, takes the idealistic path of joining the underground Naxalbari movement.
“Those days many college-going young men from well-to-do families joined the movement. As a young journalist, I got very interested in it,” recalls Handa. No, there is no autobiographical element in the novel, he insists, “I passed out of the college in 1957.”
The author says, “More than the movement, the story is about the system and how it fails to address issues of equality and development. One expects the Government to be moral and when it fails to be so, however immoral the other side is, the Government looks worse.
“While the Naxals expected that the people rise in support of them, the then Government tried to stamp out the movement through methods such as the encounter. Even the Government today is talking about using air power to silence them, nothing much has changed. Look at what the U.S. tried to do in Vietnam, the more it got involved worse it became for them,” he states his point.
Besides “Comrade Sahib”, Handa is fervent about two more novels he is conceptualising. “I will try a different model this time, it is about a failed judge, I am in the middle of creating characters for it,” he says. The second book is a travelogue, “a reminiscence of the travels I have made.”