A story of violence

Meera’s book steps into the landscape of Naxalite incursions in southern India and does it ample justice.

Published - August 13, 2016 04:20 pm IST

The Gospel of Yudas; K.R. Meera, Penguin, Rs. 399.

The Gospel of Yudas; K.R. Meera, Penguin, Rs. 399.

In the last couple of years, we have come to observe a renewed fictional interest in the Naxalite uprising of the 1960s with novelists like Jhumpa Lahiri ( The Lowland ) and Neel Mukherjee ( The Lives of Others ) exploring the tumultuous times in their English novels. Even as the political landscape of Bihar and Bengal in that period has been transposed on to the literary landscape, Naxalite incursions into south India and the thousands of stories that could have flowered around this theme have not been adequately rendered into English. K.R. Meera’s early novella, The Gospel of Yudas , in a new English translation, majestically steps into that vast, empty space and claims its rightful ground.

Told through the eyes of Prema, infatuated with Yudas, an ex-Naxalite wanderer who retrieves corpses from lakes and rivers and lives in a “windowless shack that looks like a morgue,” the novella traces her story over a period of two decades. Without veering away from the singular plot of a young woman’s obsessive quest for dangerous love, it manages all at once to capture the aftermath of police brutality, the macabre face of the state machinery, the price of betrayal and the blind sense of sacrifice that makes some young men and women decide to give up their lives for the sake of a promised revolution.

In a book replete with memorable characters, one of the most striking is Prema’s old father — a retired police officer notorious for torturing young Naxalites, who spends his time reminiscing about the brutal tales from his camp. “The old man’s custodial torture routines were trained on us at home — mother and her three children. His hands never had their fill of vocational savagery.” Without any recourse to subtlety, Prema’s love for the Naxalite is presented as a direct outcome of her father’s violence. “Nobody annihilated the fascist machinery that smothered me. The amorous hormones in my body clamoured to take on fascism. I couldn’t be in love with anyone less than a Naxalite.” A skilful achievement that exploits the fictional capability of ambiguity, the book does not take sides and yet manages to establish parallels between the oppressed people — bewitched by the liberatory potential of what Naxalbari represented — and what the figure of a guerilla represents to a girl growing up in a repressive, patriarchal household.

Obsession is a theme that runs through. Initially, Prema is obsessed with Yudas, and soon, when she finds out about his ex-lover, Sunanda, a Naxalite who died of custodial torture, she becomes obsessed by her. Anyone seeking to replace a dead rival is doomed, but love blinds Prema from realising this. The book naturally steers its way to a predictable end.

Naxalite narratives are replete with stories of how, even to kill a loathsome landlord, the group of deputed comrades would all take part in the murder, so that they were bonded together in the act of shedding the blood of a class enemy, to ensure that the killing does not become an individual act, and that betrayal under duress would not occur. In the midst of such fervent loyalty, when Yudas is forced by torture to reveal the names of other comrades, he becomes the betrayer. But unlike his namesake, the Biblical Judas Iscariot, Meera’s Yudas has to also suffer for the sins of the world, he has to become the cross-bearer, the Christ.

Meera’s lyrical and luminous prose must be singled out for praise. She effortlessly transports the reader to the lush forests and picturesque riversides of Kerala with as much aplomb as she describes the torture of captured Naxalites. The book also brings alive the political history of Kerala to those who may have only obliquely heard of the custodial murder of Rajan, the young Naxal, the fake encounter of comrade Varghese, the land struggles that established the roots for radicalism, and the almost-mythical oath of loyalty that bound the guerillas.

Coming from a writer whose previous prominent work in English translation was the colossal Hangwoman , that ran into nearly 500 pages, The Gospel of Yudas is a lesson in compactness. It succeeds in showing how the oft-neglected genre of the novella, when executed by an expert hand, can claim its legitimate space in the world of literature.

To those of us accustomed to reading K.R. Meera through J. Devika, the new translation by Rajesh Rajamohan does not disappoint. Except for a singular instance in the early pages where the quintessential ‘karimeen’ was rendered as ‘chromide’, leaving me puzzled, I found the translation smooth and grounded, allowing the reader to delve into the story without a moment’s hesitation about a language that does not belong.

Meena Kandasamy is a poet and writer.

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