Still fresh, still relevant: Karan Mahajan reviews Yashpal’s ‘Dada Comrade’

Yashpal’s debut novel, written in the 1940s, reaffirms his reputation as one of the few Indian male novelists who can be dubbed a feminist

March 05, 2022 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Long live: ‘The Revolution is Not Being Afraid’ says this graffiti in Spanish. 

Long live: ‘The Revolution is Not Being Afraid’ says this graffiti in Spanish.  | Photo Credit:

In 1930, the anti-British Hindu Socialist Revolutionary Army, led by Chandrashekhar Azad, decided to assassinate one of its own members, Yashpal. The year before, Yashpal had been involved in a daring attack on the Viceroy’s train but now stood accused of various transgressions, including a budding relationship with a younger female comrade (the source of much jealousy among his fellow male revolutionaries).

Luckily, Yashpal was tipped off about the plot and escaped. He married the comrade and lived to write over 50 books, including the 1,000-page Partition masterpiece, This Is Not That Dawn, which caps off one of the greatest oeuvres in Hindi literature. Now his debut novel — Dada Comrade, from 1941 — has been translated for the first time into English. It offers a thrilling and authentic portrait of revolutionary life and changing sexual mores in 1920s’ India.

Fight for rights

Yashpal, in his work, was deeply concerned with gender dynamics, and though Dada Comrade is ostensibly the story of a Yashpal-like revolutionary named Harish who is targeted by his fellow comrades for drifting toward Marxism and becoming involved with a woman, it is really the story of that woman, her fight for her rights in a sexually repressive revolutionary schema, and her exploration of premarital sex and open relationships. In that sense, the novel reaffirms Yashpal’s reputation as one of the few male Indian novelists who can be dubbed (with a few qualms, intelligently noted by the translator, Simona Sawhney, in her eloquent introduction) a feminist.

The young woman, Shailbala, first appears in the book as an activist urging housewives to join the independence movement. We soon learn that she is working for Harish’s group and that she and Harish are attracted to each other, even though Harish, sworn to a code of asceticism, keeps an anxious flirtatious distance. Shailbala, however, is spirited and forward and recognises the necessity of love for a fulfilled life, asking Harish at one point why he seeks a revolution in government but doesn’t “think about the tormented fluttering of lives trapped in the meshes of family and society.”

Meanwhile, Harish’s fellow revolutionaries are increasingly agitated by the Harish-Shailbala friendship, spinning conspiracy theories and asking hysterical questions like: “Will we now have to take on the task of providing abortion pills?” When Harish is finally excommunicated, the leader of the group, modelled on Azad, accuses Shailbala of destroying the party. Shailbala’s defiance in the face of his misogyny yields one of the most memorable scenes of the novel. “I want to help you people as far as I am able to,” she fumes, “but I won’t hear any criticism of my personal conduct from anyone but Father.”

The novel then is an indictment of the sexual backwardness of revolutionaries, who claim, in their talk, to believe in gender equality — a theme that remains relevant today as more and more male Leftists are toppled by MeToo. It is also an exploration of how to live authentically, or as Yashpal puts it in his foreword, “to harmonize society’s conduct and moral beliefs with our new conditions” rather than “eras[ing] the changes that have occurred... and returning to antiquity in order to preserve our ancient beliefs.”

Harish’s adventures — from revolutionary on the run to organiser of labour strikes — provide the spine of the novel, which brings together several Hindu, Muslim, and Christian characters. After Harish is targeted by his comrades, he goes into hiding with Shailbala, travelling to Mussoorie with Shailbala’s Christian lover Robert and his sister Nancy. For Harish, it is a struggle to understand that Shailbala can be involved with two men (“innumerable are your friends!” he comments sarcastically at first), while Shailbala is “overwhelmed by indebtedness and gratitude as she thought about her freedom to express affection for another man in front of Robert.”

Matrix of conflicting ideas

The scenes with the four characters in Mussoorie are an example of the great tenderness with which Yashpal depicts young love and the circularity of flirtation. It is also a surprising detour — and significant innovation — in a novel about terrorists, whose suspenseful beginning might suggest that one is about to embark on an Indian revision of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.

Meanwhile, Harish and his friends continue to debate the merits of various political philosophies to oust the British: terrorism, communism, Gandhism. One sign of the strength of Dada Comrade is that these discussions do not feel dated; they are conveyed through a range of characters from different classes. Yashpal’s brisk and unadorned prose, with its confident exposition, helps; and Sawhney’s translation maintains its fidelity to the original, only occasionally introducing clichés like the “jaws of death” (at other times, the clichés are Yashpal’s own, such as when he says a character’s “heart was in her mouth” in the original Hindi).

More importantly, despite his reputation as a political novelist, Yashpal is not an ideologue: rather, like Tolstoy, he constructs a matrix in which conflicting ideas can be explored. Reading Dada Comrade, it was impossible for me to fathom that this was published in the 1940s. Its themes are so fresh that it might have been written today.

Dada Comrade; Yashpal, trs Simona Sawhney, Penguin Modern Classics,₹399

The reviewer is author of the novels, The Association of Small Bombs and Family Planning and an assistant professor at Brown University.

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