The Brown Sahibs by Amitabh Bhatacharya: review


Of Valour and Patriotism

The Brown Sahibs, Anupam Srivastava, Vitasta, Rs 295; pages 302

There are some books that, like an effective play, want to make you stand up and applaud them. Srivastava’s book, though melodramatic in parts, is one of them, primarily because he’s been brave and nationalistic enough to write about the country and its people. Perhaps, for that reason the book may be considered old fashioned in its approach, but, the important fact is that here’s an author writing in English and writing about his country, trying to inspire thought and the feeling of love for the country and her countrymen and the grief at promises unfulfilled!

The novel has two distinct parts- the period before independence, when the country unified under the leadership of the charismatic Gandhi and the idealistic leaders who envisaged a free India and struggled for her independence which culminates in freedom at midnight, and the second half that deals with free India and how the very leaders who clamoured for freedom and equality for all are the ones who slip into the shoes of their rulers, and slowly but surely, things, for the ordinary Indian remain the same as they used to be when under the thralldom of their British rulers. It’s a gloomy premise but unfortunately appears to be true in the light of the arguments that the author puts forth.

The characters are dramatic- a raja who turns into a cabinet minister; a magnetic and committed freedom fighter who becomes the Prime Minister of free India; a prince who becomes the impassioned voice of the ordinary Indian- the common man who is otherwise gagged by forces of governance and it makes no difference to him if these forces are foreign or his own countrymen for his lot will not change and he must struggle on as he always has. The strong female character is Malti, the girl with the magic voice, Prince Pratap’s love interest, who can influence people’s thoughts and actions with her extraordinary singing.

The book spans several milieus. To begin with we are introduced to the kingdom of Teekra,  near Lucknow, ruled by  King Daulat, ‘who could still take a life or two if he wanted’ in spite of the British government.  A visit from the Resident changes the fate of the Raja, who meets, for the first time, the firebrand revolutionary leader, Vidya Babu,  accompanying the genial British officer, who has come looking for shikar  to Teekra.

The Raja joins the freedom struggle in conjunction with the leader. His son, Pratap, rejects his father’s politics and joins a newspaper, The Daily Bugle, where he does brave and honest journalistic work, which is lauded by the freedom fighters and the people alike. During the course of his work, he has the opportunity to interview Gandhi, and gets a draft of his vision of the governance of post -independence India.

Finally, inevitably, freedom is achieved on the 15th of August, 1947. The jubilation is quickly followed by India getting rift into two countries, the bloodshed and the hatred and the inadequacy of the governments to handle the violence, bloodshed and re-settling of the refugees that were the aftermath of the most savage single event in history- the partition.

Gandhi loses his power as the men who would run to do his bidding, now assume positions of power in the government and have no time to pay more than lip service to the old man, who now spends his days in prayer and fasting, grieving over his India, until, at last, he is shot to death by a zealot.

And here starts the saga of how power can corrupt the best intentions, as the government officials and the bureaucracy quickly and comfortably slip into the shoes of their white predecessors, gaining the nomenclature of the Brown Sahebs. The people who were willing to sacrifice all for the freedom of India and for equal rights for every Indian, now realize that the reality and rules of the privileged are quite different than those for the masses, and they efficiently make rules to create and maintain those differences, that  have only strengthen up to now.

Making scathing and even bitter comments about how the press was gagged, the bureaucracy corrupted, the people distanced and how, in the final analysis things really have not changed at all since the ministers and officers function and life the opulent lifestyles and enjoy the immunities just  like their imperial masters did.

It’s a sad commentary on corruption of morality and intention and of the betrayal of the people of India. In the dénouement, Srivastava has the hero, Pratap, try to rouse the people again to demand real independence, by writing fiery slogans on public buildings- representative of colonial inhertance. The end is tragic, of course and dramatic as well.

 

This was published in The  Spectrum, the magazine section of The Sunday Tribune

http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/spectrum/books/of-valour-and-patriotism/95868.html


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