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Nayantara Sahgal’s new novel, When the Moon Shines by Day (Speaking Tiger), depicts an India which has wandered off the path laid down by the founders of the nation, to become a violent world that is incomprehensible to those who cherish the humanistic and progressive values on which the modern state stands. Its calling card is systematic erasure of the past which, by the persecution of those who would be different, smooths the ground for a monocultural project. In the novel, this project is in the hands of the executive, and a government department named the Directorate of Cultural Transformation supervises the pursuit of racial purity. But, in an interview, Sahgal explains that the forces working to this end are contemporary, and that the story is told in the present tense.
If you were to put a date to the story, how far in the future would you situate it?
The story takes place in today’s India, and not in the future. The characters in the story come up against disturbing signs of change but don’t quite know what to make of them, since such things have not happened before and are alien to the India they have grown up in. They are clearly worried about the changes taking place and the kind of future that lies ahead.
You seem to assert that creative people are the only true chroniclers and, therefore, they are under attack. What would it take to forge a national culture of the compliant?
There are many true chroniclers but factual contemporary accounts have no chance of survival under censorship, when only official or favoured versions are allowed. Works of imagination, in print or paint, are in a different category. They can recall and re-create events long afterward and so can keep their truth alive. This is why authoritarian regimes are afraid of art and want it wiped out. As for a ‘national culture of compliance’, I don’t believe there is such a thing. What looks like compliance is often a silence that people take refuge in to protect themselves from the wrath of the powers that be. And then there are always those who don’t keep silent and who speak their truth, whatever the consequences. We have seen what has happened to some of them and we salute their courage.
While art was the target in MF Husain’s time, now, from Perumal Murugan via Wendy Doniger to Gauri Lankesh, the written word is the preferred target. Your book looks ahead to book-burning fiestas. Do you see an immediate effect on the national discourse?
The written word is not the only or preferred target. What you eat, how you worship, whom you fall in love with, makes you a target. Filmmakers, film stars, historians, professors, students, Dalits and women have all been under attack. This has already had its effect in the chamchagiri we get on some TV channels. But ‘the national discourse’ is going on. Citizens are making their voices heard against the assaults on their various freedoms. We Indians have had the good fortune to grow up in freedom and we are not willing to be deprived of it.
Generally speaking, the literate are under attack by the semi-literate. What does this bode for the future of our culture?
I don’t think it is just a matter of literates being attacked by illiterates. The question is why has physical violence taken the place of debate? Why do these crimes escape punishment, and what is responsible for creating the climate of fear that we now live in? In a democracy, people should not be living in fear. So this leads us to another question: is democracy itself under attack?
You have singled out European fascist regimes as models for contemporary Indian politics. Making war was their key driver, which is a fraught enterprise in a nuclearised world. What could take its place in Indian politics?
I don’t believe war is seen as an option. What we are seeing is heightened military preparedness. This, in itself, is no different from any other country since the arms race began after World War II. What is different is the visibility of the armed forces on TV panel discussions and political debates, and a general atmosphere of homage to arms. This is new to India.
In the book, a German tells an Indian, ‘Our past is your future.’ To what would you attribute humanity’s reluctance to escape the cycle?
The German character believes India is following the path of Nazi Germany. However, I don’t agree that humanity inevitably follows that path. If that had been the case, there would be no democracy left on earth. At independence, India made individual freedom, human rights and equal citizenship the foundation of new nationhood. When there has been a threat to this foundation, we have always challenged it.
The murder of Gauri Lankesh last week has drawn attention to media. How do you see it performing?
The media is vast and its performance varies. Three-quarters of the electronic media is now under corporate control. Much of the print media is likewise under official or corporate control. This is not a healthy sign for our long, strong tradition of objective and responsible journalism. This makes it all the more admirable when editors, columnists, analysts and commentators — of whom there are many — refuse to compromise their professional integrity and insist on giving us facts and truth. Gauri Lankesh was one of these. Her murder is a heinous crime and her assassination is cause for national mourning, not just for her as a fearless woman, but for what it signifies for freedom of expression.
You make a sharp distinction between the open, progressive and creative radicalism of the era of nation-building in the first half of the 20th century, and the monoculturist radicalism of the present, which looks backwards. What made the change of guard possible, or inevitable?
The ‘change of guard’ with its rejection of the pluralism and secularism that are the pride and meaning of India is hard for me to understand or accept. My parents fought for freedom under Mahatma Gandhi, who laid the foundation for an inclusive India that celebrated its pluralism and made secularism a sacred promise to its people.
In an ‘Idea Exchange’ with the editors and reporters of The Indian Express not long after the general election of 2014, rejecting distinctions within the Sangh Parivar, you had referred to the current dispensation as an RSS government. Now, key posts are indeed held by people with an RSS background. How could this influence policy and the working of government in the future?
The Sangh Parivar and the RSS are one and the same, whatever minor areas of disagreement there may be. The RSS is represented in the central and state governments, and now heads all our premier institutions, which it took over soon after the government came to power. Its control now facilitates the direction of policy, such as the rewriting of history, and it presides over the re-making of India.
Your book ends with a massive intervention that disrupts an official event to give India a religious identity and a monoculture. Can we take that intervention as a prophesy and, therefore, see a happy ending to the story?
The book does not have a happy ending. The German character, haunted by his country’s past, sees Germany’s past being repeated in India and he is filled with a sense of foreboding. He is convinced that his Indian friends have a long battle ahead of them against the forces that are destroying all that India stands for as a multicultural civilisation and a great plural society.