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The Reality of Dreams: Review of Fading Dreams, Old Tales

N Kalyan Raman

FADING DREAMS, OLD TALES by Pa Visalam,Oxford University Press, 2013, 270 pp., 495

“Communists are loath to talk about themselves. […] the memoirs of communists are so frequently without any discussion of personal feelings, and certainly not of personal ambitions.”

- Vijay Prashad, writer and academic, in Frontline magazine

The giants of the Indian Communist movement of the twentieth century – EMS Namboodiripad, AK Gopalan, BT Randive, SA Dange, Sundarayya and many more – have written memoirs which together constitute a rich archive of material about the movement they led with great distinction. However, Vijay Prashad‘s complaint still remains valid: these books reveal too little about the leaders’ personal lives and struggles, which are the essential staple of most memoirs and autobiographies. Recent works like Mohit Sen’s “A Traveller and The Road” (2003) and Ashok Mitra’s “A Prattler’s Tale” (English translation, 2007) have been somewhat more forthcoming, but the movement still looms too large in them for either author to emerge as the classic protagonist of a novel. Besides, such memoirs are written at the end of an eventful life spent in the movement, when personal doubts and conflicts of a remote youth have faded into irrelevance.

For a description of the inner turmoil of being a Communist, we usually turn to ex-Communists, the kind that very kindly brought us – and our deathless posterity – works like “The God That Failed” in the 50s. In the Indian context, however, such celebrity anti-communism has never been a sunrise industry. Those who switched to the capitalist road did so in a matter-of-fact manner and without undue public attention. Rarely is the memoir of an Indian Communist shaped by the discipline and possibilities of the novelistic imagination.

Mella Kanavai Pazhankadhaiyay”, a fictionalized memoir authored by the Tamil writer P Visalam (b.1931), which was published last year in English translation (by Meera Rajagopalan) as “Fading Dreams, Old Tales” (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012), is an interesting example of the genre. The novel narrates the life of a young Communist from childhood to her marriage in her early thirties, spent largely in Nanjil Nadu, a fertile region with high rainfall in the southernmost tip of Tamilnadu which was a part of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore.

Through the telling of the protagonist’s life-story, the novel explores three important strands: social conditions of Nanjil Nadu of that period as seen through the eyes of a girl-child; critique of a feudal, caste-ridden society from the perspective of a disadvantaged young woman who is also a Communist; an examination, at times feminist, of Left politics in India of the 50s, and in particular, of the functioning of the undivided Communist party.

“Fading Dreams, Old Tales” is told as a first-person account, in a profoundly personal voice. Sunny, engaging, reflective and poignant by turns, the authorial voice binds the reader to the narrative. The nameless protagonist is the youngest of eight children in her family, with four akkas and three annans. She is the darling of her father, a westernized man who works as an officer with the district administration. Hers is a typical upper caste family in Nanjil Nadu, owning fertile lands, upwardly mobile and not more than a generation old in white-collar occupations. Through a combination of home schooling (because of her father’s frequent transfers) and elementary education in a missionary school, the child is inducted into the traditional culture of the land – learning the great epics, the myths of Dhruva, Prahlada and Raja Harishchandra, the rousing songs of Subramania Bharathi; and the musical compositions of the local genius, Lakshmana Pillai.

The attendant perils of a deeply flawed social structure lurk just below the surface of familial warmth and affection. Privilege as landed gentry degrades and stunts the family’s two sons; and a third one, who joins the air force, dies tragically in an accident during the war. The sons-in-law are monstrously greedy in a system stacked totally in their favour. When the ten-year-old child goes to visit her eldest akka, her brother-in-law explodes:

‘What did your Amma give me? What big thing has she done? It’s not enough to keep producing children, di.’

A man twenty-five years older than me kept on saying things like this…Grief stabbed my heart. Couldn’t this akka say something? She seems to have joined ranks with athan.’ (p.64)

In an increasingly unhappy (and impoverished) household, the child withdraws into the world of books. The father, heartbroken from the death of one son and disappearance of another, takes ill and dies. The girl and her mother are reduced to living in a broken down house inherited from her mother’s mother. The girl learns that property is the only marker of respect in the society she is a part of, and filial bonds do not count for much in the quest for money. In her state of poverty and dispossession, she is introduced to communism by her brother. She comes to recognize and identify with the suffering of the oppressed around her, people who work on the fields, rubber estates and factories, of those who are pushed down and humiliated by a casteist society. Reading The Communist Manifesto and watching Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946) are epiphanies; so is meeting with the comrades from the local Party organization and sharing in the hopes for a socialist India.

Soon the remaining brother gets a clerical job in Pune and moves away. Mother and daughter eke out a meager living on the thirty rupees sent by her brother from Pune. During their attempt to extract their due share of produce from their tenant by visiting him in personally, defying social decrees against the unescorted travel outdoors by upper caste women, they meet and befriend party cadres, who are in the process of organizing agricultural workers in the district to demand higher wages and improved working conditions. The girl begins to work full-time at the party office while she and her mother try to get by on the very little they have. The girl teaches her mother about the pernicious designs behind social restrictions on women and the foolishness of accepting the abstract, generalized authority of ‘society’. Contact with young progressive writers in Nagercoil helps her discover the potential of literature for promoting socialist awareness.

Through a series of short chapters, the author portrays the development of a plucky teenager down on her luck into a thoughtful and brave worker of the Communist party, the only woman working with several male comrades. The party is just emerging from a traumatic phase after being banned in 1948, driving its entire leadership underground. The novel records the sacrifices made by the leaders, especially the legendary Krishna Pillai, who dies of snakebite while still in hiding and the great leader of the people from Kerala, AK Gopalan. A fierce critique of the fledgling Dravidian movement as seen through the eyes of communists of that era is also presented. The fifties are a time of confusion for the local communists, who discover that sloganeering is proving to be more attractive to the people than socialist awareness and that the Soviets would pragmatically endorse the Nehru regime, forcing the hand of Indian communists. The corruption and compromise of political processes in the fledgling republic leaves them baffled and helpless.

This ‘pragmatic’ phase takes its toll on the party organization. Educated people from privileged backgrounds take centre stage, and unlike in the past, those who work in the field, organizing the workers and building resistance, are marginalized. The rise of ethno-chauvinist parties like the DMK, with their populist slogans of social reform combined with support for the local bourgeoisie, further demoralizes the workers. Although identified early as a talented speaker, the girl is given menial duties at the party office and kept from attaining any degree of prominence within the party. Even the communist party remains male-dominated. She discovers that some leaders and workers, the interestingly named “Paramanandam” among them, are as beset with human frailties as ordinary folk, and are not immune to the flaws of the larger society around them.

After remaining single through her twenties, she falls in love with a fellow worker in the Party. At the end of the novel, she and her husband leave the party and begin a new life, penniless but full of hope. Meanwhile, the world’s first elected Communist government in Kerala has been dismissed through the machinations of the Congress part, and the party is left with no other option but to enter into alliances with forces inimical to its ideals. The book closes with the announcement that “all thirty-two leaders including Comrades EMS and AKG have repudiated Dange’s leadership and left the party”, the beginning of a division in the communist movement that endures to this day.

“Fading Dreams…” is more than a tale of youthful disillusionment. It offers a valuable description of family life and social relations in Nanjil Naadu in the thirties and forties, and of the chequered journey of the Communist movement in India in the face of forces ranged against it, from within and without. Even more, it’s an account of how a brave young girl is forsaken and thwarted at every turn by her family and political associates solely because of her gender; and how her hopes for the world turn poignantly into “old tales”.

Meera Rajgopalan has done a fine job of translating this important work into English. Her translation of this first-person narrative retains the nuances of the protagonist’s voice throughout, from child to embattled and disillusioned adult. The many specific details of the local culture are translated with fluency and grace. However, there are many instances where transliteration might have served better than literal translation. Kekkanuma, which refers to an excess so predictable that enquiring about it is pointless, is translated as “Must it be asked?” Similarly dosai maavu is translated as “dosai dough”, whereas “batter” is the correct term. Since English translation in India is done by those who are not native speakers of the host language, translators will definitely need the support of good editors to advance along their learning curve. This is a need that the publishing industry must fulfill in order to promote the cause of translations.

A version of this review was published in The Book Review, January 2013, Volume 1, No 1, The Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi


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