As totalitarianism intrudes into our lives in India, with journalists, activists, authors, poets and students being treated like criminals, recall George Orwell’s prophetic words: “Poetry might survive in a totalitarian age, and certain arts or half-arts, such as architecture, might even find tyranny beneficial, but the prose writer would have no choice between silence or death.” Recall also the eminent Marxist intellectual and author Tariq Ali’s novel, which depicts a dystopic authoritarian regime in his 2010 novel, Night of the Golden Butterfly, also comes to mind. Ali explores the rise of religious fanaticism, dictatorship, majoritarianism and the military-mullah-feudal nexus in his native country, Pakistan.
Ali’s work alludes to a host of contemporary issues from western imperialism to racism and immigration, and even harks back to the modern history of China to draw parallels with—and between—the democratic regimes of today. Dictatorship and capitulation of the state to religious fundamentalism are the framework of this novel, which has immense allegorical significance for contemporary India’s current collapse into dystopia.
The main protagonist and narrator, Lahore-born Dara is a famous writer who now lives in London. A cosmopolitan left-wing critic from an affluent Pakistan family that has lived through Partition—rather like Ali in real life—he is named after Dara Shukoh, the 17th century ‘secular’ Mughal poet and prince. Shukoh, modern-day readers in India and Pakistan would immediately grasp, was imprisoned by his more radical brother, the sixth Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. If this does not drag readers into current events, a host of other analogies in the narrative do the job.
Dara, now middle-aged, is contacted by an old progressive friend from his student days in Pakistan Punjab, Mohammed Aflatun “Plato”. Plato is a painter; free-spirited, crazily intelligent, bawdy and anti-clerical. He wants Dara to write his biography. The enterprise reunites them and their old circle of progressive friends who once belonged to the radical intellectual milieu of 1960s Pakistan.
In Lahore the four college students, Dara, Zahid, Plato and Hanif (“Confucius”) had begun their political and intellectual comradeship based on mutual Marxist yearnings. Dara sets up a multi-vocal narrative in which, more than 40 years later, the events associated with their lives are interwoven in the biography he is writing.
The plot combines friendship, betrayal and reconciliation. One reunion is with his former love interest, Jindié, a Chinese-origin Pakistani woman and her husband Zahid. Zahid was Dara’s former best friend and a staunch Marxist, but he had betrayed his friends and their progressive ideas to support American imperialism and its conservative policies after becoming a famous doctor there.
This brings us to India in the present day, where ideological desertions are also taking place. Numerous erstwhile secular-liberals are shifting towards the right-wing camp. The deep sense of nostalgia for ‘good old cosmopolitan Pakistan’, now overwhelmed by religious fundamentalism and bigotry, pervades Ali’s novel. “Was it old friends I was mourning or an old city, an old world that had since changed so much and for the worse, a world in which expectations for a better future were always high…” The narrator’s recollections are a signal to present-day India of what the future may look like.
The novel can be interpreted as an elegiac lament on the once multicultural and free-thinking milieu of Lahore and other places in Pakistan, which have come under the grip of religious fanaticism. “I spoke of the country where I could not live, where people were spewed out and forced to seek refuge abroad, where human dignity had become wreckage. [A dissenting person’s] life was a living-death example of a human being putrefying in the filth that was our Fatherland...its rulers. Scum of the earth. Blind, uncaring monsters. Fatherland needs a tsunami to drown them and their ill-gotten gains,” Ali writes.
Compare this description with the poignant words written by Dalit activist and intellectual Anand Teltumbde, addressed to all Indians on 13 April, just prior to his arrest. “In the name of ‘nation’ such draconian legislations (as UAPA) that denude innocent people of their liberties and all constitutional rights are constitutionally validated. The jingoist nation and nationalism have got weaponized by the political class to destroy dissent and polarise people. The mass frenzy has accomplished complete de-rationalisation and inversion of meanings where destroyers of the nation become desh bhakts and selfless servers of people become desh drohis. As I see my India being ruined, it is with a feeble hope that I write to you at such a grim moment,” Teltumbde wrote.
The dark reality of the novel can is often a clear allegorical representation of contemporary India, where a tolerant social milieu and space for dissent are facing wreckage at the hands of a regime that has encouraged religious bigotry and brute majoritarianism. In India, too, the media and judicial institutions have capitulated to the ruling regime’s dictates. As Ali notes, indifferent rulers “preside over the kind of tyrannies that break a people’s heart and their pride”. The famous 1994 poem by Fahmida Riaz comes immediately to mind: “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle. Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle.” (You, at last, turned out like us. So in the end you were just like us.)
The Night of the Golden Butterfly questions the authoritarian nationalisms backed by political consciousness, be it Sunni-Punjabi in Pakistan, Han in China or the White in the West. The author interrogates how a national identity is constructed, through a dynamic that is on the one hand homogenising and on the other fosters differences. The idea of a nation or community is built as homogenous, or unified and single-minded, to set it apart from other nations and communities. Ali strikes at this very core of this dynamic, shows up the idea of a nation as a misleading construct.
Both contemporary Pakistan and the story of 19th century China are alluded to in the novel. After the 1872 uprising of Muslims and their supporters in Yunnan against the Manchu/Han rulers, the emperor orders a genocide to wipe out the Sultanate of Suleyman in the province. The main motive is not religious, but political and economic, including fears that the Sultanate is gaining autonomy and respect beyond its domain. There is a corollary with another complex reality of Pakistan in this—the domination of the Punjabis, who make up its largest ethnolinguistic group—over all others. In the novel, Jindie slyly remarks in a letter she sends to Dara, “The talk of Han domination would have been brushed aside by all of you with contempt as it still is by Zahid. Perhaps the reason for this is that the Punjabis have become the Han equivalents of Fatherland, crushing other nationalities at will, but that’s your story. Better write it before the Baluch and the Pashtun and the Sindhi produce their own.”
The resemblance with today’s India, where the rise of Hindutva majoritarianism has thrust a singular agenda of hegemonic Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan over its diverse cultural, religious and linguistic denominations, cannot be missed.
Much of Ali’s novel, a work of fiction by definition, is already lived reality in contemporary India. Especially after 2014, democracy and republicanism have experienced a sudden epistemological break. This break is getting more penetrative and intense as time passes, posing grave existential questions about the survival of the foundations of the republic. Lynching, blood-thirst and venomous discourse about minorities and dissidents are routine today. Brute majoritarianism patronised by the rulers is penetrating all institutions—even communalising and weaponising the ongoing pandemic to repress an already-battered community.
But the malaise goes deeper. The eminent rights activist Gautam Navlakha wrote just before his recent arrest that a person is no longer innocent until proven guilty, while the reverse is quite true. In this Kafkaesque domain, the process itself becomes the punishment, quite in consonance with Orwellian dystopias. Those who speak against hate and violence are imprisoned while the perpetrators of criminal acts are licensed to roam free.
The author is a blogger and writer based in J&K. The views are personal.