In Purushottam Agrawal’s Debut Novel, a Disturbingly Familiar Dystopia

Govind Nihlani in conversation with Purushottam Agrawal, March 9. 2016. Credit: Ritambhara Agrawal

Govind Nihlani in conversation with Purushottam Agrawal, March 9. 2016. Credit: Ritambhara Agrawal

“The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”
George Orwell, 1984

New Delhi: “My novel is dark because I wrote it in a state of bechaini [anxiety]. In truth, I would like to think of myself as in a state of neither extreme pessimism nor optimism.”

So said writer-academic Purushottam Agrawal, responding to filmmaker Govind Nihalani, during the spirited conversation that took place between them at the India International Centre, New Delhi, on March 9, about writing, freedom, and technology. Nihalani had commented on Agrawal’s new novel Nakohas being deeply dystopic, making it a difficult and heavy read. He compared it to George Orwell’s 1984. Indirectly, of course, he was also asking why Agrawal had written such a disturbing book in the first place.

Agrawal is best known as a scholar of Kabir, and also as a writer of satirical essays. Nakohas is his debut novel, making the launch-cum-conversation on March 9 a particularly special event for the many writers, academics, students and literature enthusiasts who attended.

Agrawal explained how the story Nakohas – Hindi acronym for the fictitious ‘National Commission for Hurt Sentiments’ – evolved:

A decade ago, I wrote a satirical essay on his sense of the growing political control on free speech and ‘anti-national’ sentiment, in which he proposed to start an Ahat Bhavna Ayog, or, ‘Hurt Feelings’ Committee.’ Out of that satirical essay was born a longer, and altogether new, rendering of the same themes: the novel Nakohas.

‘Nakohas’ is an invented name for an abstract idea, a force, a character – you would have to read the novel, of course, to define it fully and precisely for yourself! The novel is about the locks put on one’s tongue by political forces, and the power of technology over one’s consciousness.

Happily for his fans, Nakohas retains Agrawal’s quintessential satirical style. Perhaps partly as a result, it is also able to blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy. So, in one section of the novel, which Agrawal narrated to the audience, one of the three protagonists, Suket attempts to turn off his television with the remote control. But the television simply refuses to cooperate and stays switched on. The very walls of the room then transform into television screens, literally turning Suket hostage. In the world of Nakohas, fantasy and reality, good and evil, satire and seriousness blend together.

Fantasy turning to reality

“A decade ago, when I wrote the essay,” Agrawal told Nihalani, “these fears of mine, about the curbs on freedom of speech, were just that – fears. The proposal of the Hurt Feelings’ Committee was satirical. The whole thing was a fantasy. That fantasy has now turned to reality!”

Agrawal’s experience of ‘fantasy turning to reality’ – an experience he suggested is collective, applicable for all of us concerned about the stifling of free thought and speech – captures the nightmarish dystopia that is Nakohas. It is fitting, therefore, that the novel’s style should also combine realistic detail and dialogue with abstract ideas and surreal scenarios.

Nihalani began the conversation by comparing the novel to George Orwell’s 1984. But now he added that the character of Nakohas in Agrawal’s book is actually much more complex than Big Brother of Orwell’s stark totalitarian regime. Nakohas is not just abstract evil operating in a simplistic environment or situation, but is also embodied in flesh and blood, in control of its own language, manipulative and opaque, full of unpredictability and its own wit to counter the protagonists’ – a body and mind truly alive, to be wrestled and conversed with.

Nakohas began with that essay a decade ago, yet its message, and so many of its detailed scenes and passages of dialogue – which Nihalani described as “vigorous” – seem to hit home today. The timeliness is ironic in a grim way, for it only reinforces the novel’s satire and darkness, making it all the more meaningful and effective. Here is a passage from the book that seems to ring eerily true now:

“…university campus ki sarak. Nare. Do-dhai sau larko ka hujum: ‘Anti-national professor Suket murdabad, murdabad! National sentiments hurt karne valo ko – jute maro salo ko! Bhavnao se khilvar karne vale ko – goli maro salo ko! Rashtra virodhi tathvo ko – jala do, mita do…”

“…the street of the university campus. A crowd of around two hundred boys has gathered: ‘Death to anti-national professor Suket! Those who hurt national sentiments – beat those bastards with shoes! Those who distort ideas – shoot those bastards with bullets! Anti-national elements – burn them, eliminate them…”

As Nihalani himself noted, Nakohas is not an easy or light read. But the bechaini that birthed it is real and makes the novel compelling reading.