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Monday, February 17, 2020

A Murder on Animal Farm

Slain rationalists, lynchings and caste agitations figure in Marathi writer Pravin Bandekar’s new Orwellian novel, which explores the disappointments of all political change.

Written by Sushant Kulkarni | Updated: April 21, 2019 6:00:32 am
Pravin Bandekar, Pravin Bandekar books, Pravin Bandekar Indian Animal Farm Big Brother Watching: Pravin Bandekar in the Sawantwadi college where he teaches. (Photo: Sushant Kulkarni)

On a hot and humid April evening in Sawantwadi, a town in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district, Pravin Bandekar sits on the lakefront of Moti Talav talking about his latest novel, inspired by two George Orwell masterpieces on absolute state power. An armed police guard, deployed for the author’s security, sits at a distance, keeping a close watch on us — an appropriate meta-comment on the writer, recent events in his life and his work.

Bandekar’s new work, Indian Animal Farm (Shabd Publication) is a political fable told through anthropomorphised animal characters. It doesn’t take a lot to join the dots between contemporary politics and Bandekar’s novel, which features agitations by caste groups, mob lynching and state surveillance. The pigs represent the ruling class; dogs stand in for caste and religious lobbies, while the media is represented by crows and other birds. The common man is the donkey, but naturally.

The book begins with the murder of an old horse, Krushna Mhatarba, a progressive leader of animals. “If we think of the politics of India around Independence, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was a turning point. Among other things, it widened the existing rift between the Brahmin and non-Brahmin castes. Its repercussion`s can be felt even today,” says Bandekar, 52, who teaches English literature at a college in Sawantwadi.

In the novel, the murder of the horse is an allegory for the assassinations of Gandhi, and the killings of rationalist-scholars Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and others. “They were proponents of progressive thought and had many followers of their own. They became obstacles in the way of a certain agenda. So, they had to be eliminated,” says Bandekar.

A few months before he was murdered (in February 2015), Pansare had presided over a literary meet in Sawantwadi organised by Bandekar. The anguish he felt at the death as well as the murder of Dabholkar led the Orwellian theme to suggest itself. “I wanted to tell the story of a man of principles, who is murdered,” says Bandekar.

Born in Vengurla in Sindhudurg, Bandekar grew up on this stretch of Konkan coast. His father was a Gandhian, and worked with the agriculture department. “I grew up in a socialist environment,” he says. In his college days, Bandekar was drawn to democratic socialist organisations like the Rashta Seva Dal and the philosophy of freedom fighter Pandurang Sadashiv Sane.

The forces that grind and stymie the lives of the common man of Konkan has been the central concern of his writing. His first novel was Chalegat (2009), the title alluding to a dissatisfied ghost in Malvani dialect. In it, Bandekar portrayed the slowly crumbling worlds of farmers and fishermen on the coast, as multinational capital encroaches on their lives. In his second novel, Ujavya Sondechya Bahulya, published in 2017, he explored the repercussions of identity politics.

Bandekar speaks three languages — Malvani, Marathi and Goan Konkani — having lived mostly on the border of Maharashtra and Goa. But Indian Animal Farm is mainly written in the dialect spoken on the border villages of Kolhapur district, with a smattering of abuses. “I wanted to examine people’s aspiration for a change in power. The dream of better days or to use the latest reference, achhe din, is never realised. In Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), the animals think that a shift in power from two-legged to the four-legged will bring a bright future. All over the world, history has shown that the aspirations of common people, who take part in a revolution, are never fulfilled. Even in the ideal state of Ram Rajya, the epic shows that Ram himself could not be just to everyone around him,” he says. In the Indian Animal Farm, the donkey points out that no animal on the farm could say that “there is no blood on its horns, teeth, fangs or nails.”

Bandekar’s road to finding a framework for this novel came via Orwell’s 1984 (1949), as well as his own lived experience. In July last year, he got a call from the special protection unit of the Maharashtra police. The government, he was told, was providing him security cover as his name had appeared in a diary recovered in an explosives haul from Nalasopara, Mumbai, in which members of the radical Hindutva organisation Sanatan Sanstha had been arrested. No more information was provided about the context in which his name had turned up. Many persons allegedly associated with Sanatan Sanstha have been arrested in the murders of rationalists Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, as well as editor Gauri Lankesh.

The call came when Bandekar was close to finishing the first draft of his novel. “When someone is watching your means of expression, there is a fear that your expression can be destroyed. So then what does a writer do? Because he has to say what he wants to. He then uses allegories and symbols. While the decision to use animal characters was taken before, it confirmed that it was the form I had to use. I finished it in haste. I thought this novel had to come out now, in this time, for it to have its impact,” he says.

The presence of a security guard life was disorienting. “I could not focus. People were speculating about many things. It was also the time many activists were arrested and labelled urban Naxals,” recalls the writer. Bandekar has been associated with several state and national ensembles of progressive writers and thinkers. After the murders of the rationalists, he became a part of Dakshinayan, a movement of artists, writers and intellectuals initiated by Ganesh Devy. Bandekar was also among writers who returned the state government awards in 2015 to protest the killings. “Being given security made me insecure from inside,” he says.

He wonders if the arrests of activists like Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde and others in the Elgaar Parishad case is a way of intimidation. “It seems physically eliminating someone is not the only way to silence people. This type of mental harassment not only affects you but also those like you. You are framed in cases, you make rounds of the court,” he says.

But while Orwell’s Animal Farm ends in the absence of hope, Bandekar’s book concludes with frail optimism. A young generation of animals wants to identify with the ideals of the slain old horse. “It is a possibility that has fuelled and kept alive all the struggles of the past and present,” he says.

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