There is always a certain awkwardness in critically reviewing a work of fiction written with a sincere social and political purpose and one which intends to inform, educate and trouble one’s social conscience. The awkwardness increases when the political intent is something one sympathises with and endorses and where one shares the writer’s larger worldview. Being critical becomes even more difficult when the writer has a felicitous pen and an ability to put forward his message clearly, simply, and forcefully. No histrionics, no sensation mongering, no pamphleteering and no hysteria.
Vibhuti Narain Rai’s Curfew in the City , first published as a Hindi novella in 1988 ( Shahar Mein Curfew ), has just been translated in English (by C.M. Naim) and brought out by Penguin in 2016. Vibhuti Narain Rai was a senior police officer, who had direct personal experience of handling conflagrations and hostile situations in several communally sensitive areas in Uttar Pradesh. The novella is derived from this extensive experience.
In its 94 pages, the novella presents a few intense accounts of families caught in the middle of a curfew imposed in the aftermath of communal riots and the impact this has on families living in the dense, claustrophobic environments of the inner city of Allahabad. Each story reads like a tightly paced set of moving images. The sheer intensity of these images makes the stories poignant and powerful. There is a Hemingwayesque quality to the spare, unadorned prose and the wealth of graphic details of the physical surroundings in which the squalid communal politics of mofussil India gets played out. Rarely has anyone brought out so sharply the sordidness of living in the hell holes of our inner cities. In fact, it is the graphic intensity of the description of the physical surroundings that gives each story a unique dimension.
The stories themselves are relatively uncomplicated. The story of the young wife of a bidi worker trapped by the curfew in a hole-in-the-wall tenement with 10 other members of a joint family and just one filthy toilet shared by all, watching her infant daughter die for want of medicines and nourishment. The relentless humiliation her old father-in-law faces when pleading with a callous administration to obtain curfew passes to bury his granddaughter; the sordid scheming petty mofussil politicians for whom the communal riots they themselves engineer are a means to settle political scores and aggrandise power; the brutality and bestiality of a police force full of hate and prejudice for the most vulnerable; the moral ambivalence of the civil administration unable to check the sly games played by those who control local political power; the rape of a young girl by hoodlums she thinks of as brothers — all these stories unfold like a starkly terrifying reality show to which we are silent witnesses.
It is obvious that these stories are based on deeply felt experiences on which the writer has reflected long and hard. What is remarkable about them, apart from their immediacy and their frightening correspondence with reality, is that they are written by a policeman. Rai’s ability to get under the skin of his sharply edged cameo characters is extraordinary, almost as though he himself was experiencing trauma and humiliation at the hands of a brutal and inhuman police force.
The novella is said to have evoked conflicting reactions from both sides of the communal divide in India. The Muslims praised it as it confirmed their worst fears about the attitudes of the vocal, politically powerful sections of the majority community and the administration, particularly the Armed Constabulary. The Hindu right wing lambasted it as it presented the majority community and their political leaders in a poor light. The VHP, predictably, sought the banning of the book and threatened to torch cinema houses if anyone tried to make and show a film based on the book.
While the conflicting reactions are a testimony to the power of the book, they also underline its biggest weakness. When books are written to convey a specific socio-political message they demand that they be judged on the strength of the political convictions that underpin the message and whether that message has been effectively communicated. The literary merits of the book are subordinated to the political purpose.
Had this been a true-life document, an account of what actually happened in the wake of a communal riot, and had these been true stories corroborated by documentary evidence, this would have been a journalistic masterpiece in the manner of a Truman Capote. But this, we know, is a work of fiction.
As a work of creative fiction, a work must be judged on its literary merit rather than its political message. By that standard, the book is somewhat lightweight and thin. The characters are at best sharp cameos rather than people we get to know, love or hate. They remain two dimensional. Nor is the book a major social document of life and times in a North Indian city in the 80s.
These shortcomings arise primarily from the paradoxical situation that Rai finds himself in — the desire to inform, educate and raise awareness and the desire to create a work of art. It is a paradox with no easy answers.
This is a brave book and Rai deserves fulsome applause for the effort. Ultimately, it is a good read. Not least is the quality of the translation from Hindi to English, which is superlative. The hallmark of a great translation is when one does not notice that the original was in another language and not once did I feel that the book has not been written in English — so natural and felicitous is the flow. Do read it.
Amitabha Pande is a retired IAS officer who has held policy and strategy positions for over three decades.
Curfew in the City; Vibhuti Narain Rai, trs. C.M. Naim, Penguin, Rs. 199.