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Personal Is Political: Bhaskar Roy’s Fifty Year Road Revisits India Through Memory & Nostalgia

Senior journalist Bhaskar Roy’s recent book ‘Fifty Years Road’ takes one through the roller coaster ride of Indian politics – since the days of Naxalite movement to the emergence of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India.

Bimal
Cover: Fifty Years Road Photo: Bimal
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In 1970, feminist activist and author Carol Hanisch wrote an essay titled ‘The Personal Is Political’ emphasizing how the lived experience of women can be a tool of resistance. In similar way, several Dalit and black authors in the later days held on to ‘personal’ to talk about the ‘political’. But how does this phrase work for a journalist whose journey itself tells the story of a nation or perhaps of a continent? Senior journalist and columnist Bhaskar Roy’s recent book ‘Fifty Years Road’ does exactly the same and takes one through the roller coaster ride of Indian politics – since the days of Naxalite movement to the emergence of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India.

This book somehow reminds one of Clarrissa Ward’s ‘On All Fronts’ (2020) where she takes her readers through the war-torn terrains of Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria but never misses the chance express the personal emotions that weave her stories.

Born to Bengali parents- both of whom were government employees- Roy’s childhood though thorny, was materially better than many others during the tumultuous political time. When the unemployment was at the peak and the Naxal movement entered the school campuses, one of the Naxalite boys once asked his mother, “Kakima, why don’t you quit your job? Thousands of educated young men are unemployed, and both of you are in service.” Though Roy’s mother laughed at it and lightly said that if the government would give my job to you or your friend, I would quit- the uncertainty of time was captured in every chapter that deals with Roy’s childhood.

His journey from the suburban Ashoknagar, a refugee settlement at the outskirt of Kolkata through Burwan in Murshidabad district to Kolkata itself depicts the moments of loss and hope. One can barely think of such detailed personalized account of Naxalite movement from a teenager’s perspective who witnessed the unattended ‘decapitated’ bodies lying on the streets. With the news of peasant revolt in North Bengal spreading across India in the late 1960s, Charu Majumder and Kanu Sanyal became household names. Majumder’s call to the youths didn’t go unheard. On one hand, the unemployment, corrupted system and feudal fiefdoms in politics made radical Marxism the only feasible political alternative for several youths; on the other, the romanticism of revolution- of manifesting a new beginning- pulled them towards sacrifice. Whoever has read Samaresh Majumder’s Bengali novel ‘Kalbela’ knows it well that for every Animesh, both love for Madhavilata and for the imminent ‘change’ was revolution.

Roy in the first few sections of the book captures this essence without forgetting to depict the brutal street violence that wrote the bloody scripts of West Bengal politics in 1970s. As thousands of aspiring youths either got killed by the state or the rival groups and the rest of them continue facing police torture in jails, Roy falls back on their memory, nostalgia and hope to tell their realities. He quotes the letters of the revolutionaries from the prison to at least humanise them at a time when dehumanisation of these youths by the state became a norm.

In one of the letters whereas an uncle- with an indominable spirit and hope- writes to her nephew and niece to store the ripe coconut for him to come home; on the other, someone sticks to his ideology even in broken limbs- “We firmly believe ours is the only way to serve the people. In the confusion of mellow light and dark in the wee hours before sunrise, it seems the night will obstinately prevail. But removing all doubts, the sub ultimately does come up pushing the gloom away.”

These hope-laden words were not only limited to the letters of these youths, rather, it impacted the Bengali literature and the firebrand poets Sankha Ghosh, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Nabarun Bhattacharya and many others came up with immortal words that forever changed the landscape of Bengali poems.

Meanwhile, Roy shifted from high school to college and in the early days joined even active politics. This was the crucial time when India got its first non-Congress Government in 1977. Recalling the headlines from that historic day, Roy quotes ABP: “Stage set for India’s First Non-Congress Government, Indira Resigns.” However, the brilliance of Roy as an author lies in not missing the other headlines of Indian Express- “Ban on the majoritarian RSS and Islamist Jamaat lifted and RSS Chief Balasaheb Deoras Released.”

Hereafter, Roy continues, in his personal-political narrative style, the story of India. His entry to journalism, Sikh riots, Indira Gandhi’s killing, formation and fall of V P Singh’s government, him falling in love and getting married together blur the lines between his individual reality and societal circumstances. But all of these culminate to the day- December 6, 1992. “It was Sunday... Mani and I had gone to look for a flat we could rent in the neighbourhood; with the child growing up, we needed more space... The news of depredations in Ayodhya was already on television.” As he rushed to the office and from there to the BJP headquarters at the Ashoka Road to understand the mood around town, he writes, “One could foresee the long spell of sectarian violence and terror coming to cast their ugly shadow over India.”

Roy’s almost five-decades long career gave him the opportunity to observe closely several tall leaders like Manmohan Singh, Narasimha Rao, L K Advani to name a few. He though never left a chance to criticize them constructively, in case of former West Bengal CM Siddhartha Shankar Roy, one feels that he has cut him a slack. Even after calling him the most hated man in state’s history, he spoke at length about his charisma and attributed the state’s return to normalcy partially to him. That it was during Roy’s tenure that both street violence and the state brutality touched its peak has not been forgotten by many who witnessed it closely.

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However, the book gives an in-depth nuanced view of Indian politics through a unique way of telling stories. It may interest the people who love to hear the murmurs at the power corridors and those who still live in the nostalgia of India’s good old days of politics.

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