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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Comrade Sahib

Rohit Handa

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Title: Comrade Sahib
Author: Rohit Handa
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977
Length: 267 pages
Availability: Comrade Sahib - US
Comrade Sahib - UK
Comrade Sahib - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining slice of politicized-late-1960s-India life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
India Int'l. Centre Q. . 1/1978 Usha Khanna
India Today F 5/1/2015 Dilip Simeon
The Tribune . 16/8/2009 Shalini Rawat

  From the Reviews:
  • "The subject deserves a sensitive pen, not this brash flippancy. This is not a portrait, but a caricature, and most readers will learn nothing about revolutionaries or the Naxalite movement from it. And for those who possess more than a mere nodding acquaintance with the subject, it is irritating in the extreme." - Dilip Simeon, India Today

  • "Jarring questions in our peaceful world -- the book stirs the muddy bottom of democracy. Better editing would have made it a pleasure to read." - Shalini Rawat, The Tribune

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Comrade Sahib is set in 1968-9, just as the Naxalite movement -- a militant movement led by a Maoist branch of the Communist Party of India -- emerged. (Slightly anachronistically, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) that several of the characters are member of does not appear to have actually been founded until 22 April 1969, after the central events in the book.) The hotbed of the movement was in Bengal, but the Naxalites in Comrade Sahib are active in Punjab (meaning also -- usefully for the novel -- in greater isolation, this group more or less on its own), while some of the action also takes place in the national capital, Delhi. In any case, the novel is not primarily an account of the Naxalite movement, but rather describes an India searching for an identity and a future, a corrupted political system offering a veneer (that is largely a holdover from British colonial times) of stability and control, but so degraded that it is in danger of collapse from both without and within.
       The novel begins with Hari Om Dhingra, who began working in government under the British and now is a high-ranking official in the Foreign Service; in Delhi now, he expects to be appointed ambassador to West Germany any day now. As he well knows, "his succession to the Raj had been a fluke": in school a teacher once asked how many of the pupils used a Western-style toilet; as one of three students to wisely raise his hand Hari Om switched places with three pupils in the separated 'European Section' (three who were: "sent to the native side in exchange for squatting with their feet on the commode seat"). Hari Om tried to Anglicize himself as best possible -- he even considered Anglicizing his name -- and twenty years after the British left everything British is still his ideal. So also all his notions of proper government, regardless of how anachronistic the crumbling system has become.
       Wife Amrita has even less faith in Indians, and dreams of improving the native genes -- in a rather ambitious and unconventional manner:

     By advocating and arranging a mass infusion of European blood into India, in other words by re-Aryanising the race.
       (Her sexual fantasies, of missed opportunities, no doubt help fuel this vision.)
       Their son, Pratap -- "known in the family and to his friends as Peter" -- is enrolled at St. Stephen's College, but has had a political awakening. Sending his father a rude letter in which he disavows any connection with this ultimate representative of the powers-that-be except the most basic one (he signs it: "Your genetic descendant"), he announces his complete break with: "you and the upper bourgeoisie of this country", and his embrace of the Maoist-Communist cause. Typical of dad's reaction is that: "His preoccupation was not so much with what Peter had done as with what people would say". Mom isn't thrilled either, but at least admires Peter taking some initiative.
       New cadres are usually sent to train in Bengal, but Peter is allowed to join a Punjab unit, joining an older fellow student who had recruited him, Bullu Das Gupta. The other important figure in the group is Unit Secretary Gurjit Singh, and the three of them form the: "triumvirate consisting of the Bengali, the Sahib and the Soldier.
       While Bullu and Peter are idealists, and Peter the intellectual in a group that includes many barely educated followers, Gurjit's own agenda is one of self-aggrandizement, the party merely a vehicle to allow him to wield power over others.
       A corrupt local electricity board makes an ideal target for the Naxalites to prove they want to better the situation of the disenfranchised poor. Handa amusingly describes the hinterland and the bumbling of officialdom there, as they find it hard to believe what is happening in their sleepy and otherwise so predictable corner of the world. Despite their small number, the Naxalites manage a number of successful smaller and larger coups, including eventually even taking over the town of Fazilka. That, and most of the other successes, are due in no small part to Peter's strategic planning.
       Of course, once the Naxalites take over the town the matter becomes one where the government has to react, and the only possible reaction is to crush the insurrection. Peter's presence complicates matters, as the authorities are instruct that he be extricated unharmed -- his father is such an important figure that it wouldn't do to have his role in all this broadcast everywhere, much less him become any sort of martyr.
       Handa's not-quite-satire is a darkly amusing meditation on a nation puttering on without much ambition, with roles clearly defined and abuses -- in particular, taking advantage of (government) roles to (mis)appropriate funds -- so deeply ingrained they are taken as the expected norm. So, for example, Hari Om takes advantage of his diplomatic position to smuggle in goods from abroad, allowing him to live a luxurious lifestyle unavailable to most Indians. (Of course, the abuses of those controlling the Electricity Board are much worse.) As Hari Om once wrote: "the civil service has no policy -- it only has power" -- and, unfortunately, it takes advantage of that, without considering the nation's long-term interests.
       Comrade Sahib is less about a political movement than about the types and motives involved in both preserving the status quo and trying to affect change, the weight of history -- both colonial and pre-colonial -- and questions of national and personal identity, obligations, and destiny hanging heavily over practically all the characters. Self-serving Gurjit undermines the Naxalite cause, while idealistic and truly dedicated-to-the-greater-good Peter is marginalized in a fine little slice of guerilla life -- but Handa's novel gains from its portrayal of a broader spectrum of characters, from all levels of society. For a relatively short novel, it offers a surprisingly broad panorama -- and a striking picture of late-1960s India. It's also really quite fun, even in its exaggerations (such as Peter's letters to his father).
       A neat little discovery.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 September 2015

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Comrade Sahib: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Indian author Rohit Handa was born in 1937.

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© 2015 the complete review

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