Siddhartha Deb responds to Toral Gajarawala's essay on the tendency of Indian authors writing in English to ignore the country's Maoist rebels. I found Toral Gajarawala's review of Sudeep Chakravarti's Red Sun ("The Hungry Tide", June 26) interesting, engaging and well-written. I couldn't agree with her more about the limitations, self-imposed and otherwise, of Indian English fiction when it comes to addressing movements outside the political mainstream. I also agree with her about the significance of the Maoist movement in India - a significance that has indeed been ignored by fiction writers (and, indeed, many Indian citizens).
I have a few thoughts, however, about her specific comments on my second novel, Outline of the Republic. She is right that the novel is far more focused on its middle-class, urban protagonists than the rebels he investigates. But the insurgents in Outline aren't Maoists; though they might have been influenced by Maoists in their early formation, I make clear that they are ethnic nationalists more than anything else. As Gajarawala notes, Maoists are not ethnic nationalists.
Also, the novel was conceptualised and written in 2003 and 2004, when the Maoist movement in Central India had not yet made major inroads in Chattisgarh or neighbouring states. Until the Communist Party of India (Maoist) formed in late 2004, there was no strong "Red Corridor". Anyway, my own writing efforts have focused, for better or worse, on another world ignored by Indian writers, intellectuals and journalists: the north-east of India. In Outline of the Republic and my first novel, The Point of Return, I attempted to capture the region's violence, ethnic nationalism and diversity - and the coexistence of Indian hegemony with a way of life heavily inflected by a sense of being peripheral to the Indian mainstream.
In Outline, this meant that the insurgent group was a fluid entity, penetrated or perhaps even formed by Indian intelligence groups. In addition to Amrit, the journalist, I also described Malik, the emissary from mainstream India to the periphery, Leela, a local woman caught up in Malik's machinations, an Indian intelligence officer named Sharma and a Burmese democracy activist. It's not for me to say whether this effort to blur lines (Who's an insurgent? Who's a soldier? Who is fighting for India and who is seeking to undermine it?) was successful or not, but it reflected my direct, painstaking experience travelling through Manipur. I did this travelling well before I had become a writer, and I did it with my own money. I had pitched stories about the north-east to several Indian newspapers, and failed to interest any of them.
I turned to fiction in part out of frustration at not being able to write about the north-east as a journalist. In an ironic twist (one that confirms several of the points made in Gajarawala's piece), now that I have written two novels set in the north-east, and published them in the West, Indian publications constantly ask me to write about the region. In short, I don't think my refusal to directly portray the insurgents is the same kind of oversight as most Indian writers' refusal to engage with the Maoists and similar movements. But Gajarawala's larger point is significant and well made, and I wouldn't argue that I have much to learn about how to write about India.
Finally, Gajarawala and readers of The Review may be interested to know that in 2004 I published a story, Nothing Visible, in the Australian magazine Heat, that is set in a coal mine in Bihar and in which the Maoists make a brief, fleeting appearance. Siddhartha Deb, New York