DRAFT - please do not cite or circulate
Emergency Allegories – from Mode to Genre
Ayelet Ben-Yishai University if Haifa / Cornell Society for the Humanities February 2018
[Allegory] allows for instruction, for rationalizing, for categorizing and codifying, for casting spells and expressing unbidden consumptions, for Spencer’s “pleasing analysis” and, since aesthetic pleasure is a virtue also, for romantic storytelling, for satirical complication, and for sheer ornamental display. To conclude, allegories are the natural mirrors of ideology. (Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, p.369)
In 1972, three years before the declaration of Emergency, O.V. Vijayan, Malayali author and renown political cartoonist then living in New Delhi, began work on a scathing and ribald satirical allegory of political corruption. Written in Malayalam, the novel Dharmapuraanam was set to begin serialization in July 1975. However, history had other plans, and Vijayan, not wanting to court trouble overtly, waited until 1977, when the Emergency was lifted, to begin serialization. For reasons both political (the satire spared no-one, neither on the right nor on the left) and moralistic
(the novel was both sexually and linguistically explicit), Dharmapuraanam was met with public and critical disapproval and the novel was only published in full in 1985. Its English version, The Saga of
Dharmapuri, was translated by the author and published by Penguin Books in 1988.1 The novel - it must immediately be said - was shocking in its content: an unrelenting and revolting litany of violence and degradation, a grotesque portrayal of political power as an obsession with excrement, sex, and eating (often all at the same time).
1 See Vijayan’s “Author’s Note” The Saga of Dharmapuri p.8. While Vijayan repeatedly told this story of the publication - stressing that his novel preceded the events it was satirizing, it remains unclear how much of the novel was written or revised during the Emergency and in its immediate aftermath. In 1992 he said, “It was begun before the Emergency, but it was a portrayal of the events leading up to Emergency” (Pillay 93). Ben-Yishai Emergency Allegories
Revulsion, or disgust, was the novel’s goal; as Vijayan explained in a 1992 interview, “I was in search of the Ultimate verbal obscenity because the objects of my criticism -- the state, war, political and personal domination, the trivial motives beneath the grand historical posture of Kings and Presidents -- were not merely sociological aberrations, but obscenity rooted in the spirit itself”
(94). And yet according to Vijayan, while the spirit is immanently obscene, it also carries within itself its potential salvation, personified in the novel by the incongruous appearance of a spiritual healer - Siddhaartha, introduced in the novel’s Glossary as “Not the Buddha of history but a parallel creation” (160). The allegory’ like many others before it, is thus made up of two parts: a grotesque political satire coupled with a spiritual conclusion or frame narrative. While the two parts never really work together in the novel (at least to my mind), Vijayan regards them as inextricable; their coexistence marking the specificity of the Indian case from other modes of tyranny:
It will be inappropriate to compare [The Saga] with the portrayals of tyranny done in Latin America or Eastern European fiction. There was no Indian tyrant. There was only the Indian hedonist. Power was held and defended as a means to almost frivolous gratifications. In other words we had a terribly inefficient tyranny, and an inefficient resistance. (93)
According to Vijayan then, the Emergency is characterized by its ludicrousness, its ineffectuality, and its superficiality, which ultimately - in Indian culture - must cede to spirituality (hence the appearance of Siddhartha). This, he continues, is “the great Indian principle of enlightened failure”
(93). In other words, spirituality, figured as reincarnation, sets Indian authoritarianism, as well as
Indian existentialist angst, apart from its counterparts elsewhere in the world. “[T]he Hindu certitude of rebirth … gives an altogether different dimension to political despair” (94).
I will return to this politics of disgust and to the temporality of rebirth later, but would here like to say that while this spiritual view might be appealing, the novel itself, as I’ve already hinted, does not really uphold it. While Siddhaartha might in fact offer an “enlightened failure,” the spiritual framing of the novel does not really seem to provide a horizon of possibility, a complement, or an antithesis to its agents of revulsion and obscenity. Notably, Siddhaartha fails in the novel because of
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his passivity, the very same passivity and ineffectuality against which Vijayan rails when he denounces an “inefficient resistance” (94).2 What then does The Saga of Dharmapuri offer in the face of tyranny (inefficient or otherwise)?
The 1992 interview quoted above might hold a clue. After repeatedly asking about the novel’s “obscenity,” the interviewer, C.G. Pillay, tries to understand the novel’s political referent:
C.G.P.: Does the Saga of Dharmapuri lend itself to be construed as a fictional representation of the post-colonial realities in the third world countries? O.V.V.: It does and it goes beyond. It is a blind search for a civilizational alternative. More discussion on this will be pompous. (95)
Vijayan here offers his literary experimentation as a form of political imagination, even world- building. While he realizes how audacious and pretentious (“pompous”) this could sound, it is clear that forging a “civilizational alternative” is a sincere goal of his writing, a sincerity I propose to take seriously. Moreover and conversely, the search for a civilizational alternative is to him inter alia a reconfiguring of literary forms:
C.G.P.: Your environmental and ecological preoccupations necessitate a redefining of the scope of modern fiction. Would you comment on that? O.V.V.: This is what I described earlier as a search for a civilizational alternative. (96)
I take this somewhat obscure formulation to mean that Vijayan’s political intervention might be found not in the existentialist political theology that it offers in the novel’s content (the spiritual response to obscene politics) but rather in the form in which he chooses to articulate this civilizational alternative - the allegory. Vijayan’s deep investment in form is reflected by the unusually wide range of genres in which he worked. His prominence as a Malayali novelist is rivaled by his national renown as a political cartoonist and short-story writer (four of these stories
2 See also Mathur 74. Vijayan sees the Emergency as a time of extreme withdrawal and thus calls it the “Eunuch voice of history.” Moreover, for him, the political passivity is endemic “Not only our cartoonist but also our litterateur, scientist and politician is too afraid to stand on his own feet” (“Cartoonist’s Workshop” 11) but also lethal: “Degeneration is shared by all those who figure in it, by the perpetrator of injustice as well as the victim. This is a lethal variant of tyranny, oppression through consent” (Pillay 95). See also TN Dhar, who reads Vijayan’s short story “The Feotus” as a comment on the “passivity” that characterized the Emergency (Dhar 231). Indeed, even contemporary conversations with Indian literary figures are often laced with a tone of regret at the lack of artistic resistance to the Emergency (see Aravind Mehotra, September 2017).
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are about the Emergency).3 In the following chapter, I would thus like to focus on the politics of allegory as a response to the Emergency, moving with Vijayan from readings of allegories as modes of political representation to understanding allegory as a mode of political intervention.
Between allegory and allegorical reading
Vijayan’s novel is joined in this chapter by two other allegories: Arun Joshi’s The River and the City (1990) and Ranjit Lal’s Crow Chronicles (1996). These three allegories are similar in their subject matter: all describe societies struggling under the yoke of a callous, narcissistic dictator and his power-hungry coterie of ministers and advisers. All feature a declaration of a state of emergency to describe the way in which fear (of enemies without and within) is manufactured and cynically manipulated in society to gain ever more control and financial gain by an increasingly authoritarian and violent elite. Notably, The Saga of Dharmapuri and The City and the River both take place in an unspecified time, at once ancient (alluded to by their mythic registers), modern (helicopters, laser, and other technological markers), and timeless (doubly signified, first by their being of no specific time, and second by the spiritual temporality of rebirth).4
3 Each of his three novels has taken on a distinct genre, corresponding to his to his changing political worldview; each in turn changing the Malayali (and arguably the Indian) literary landscape. Thus, Vijayan’s early novel broke new ground in Malayali literature that, until the 1960s, was either romantic or written in a Soviet-inflected form of social realism (according with much Keralan politics as well as Vijayan’s own). His final novel was an exploration of spirituality that earned him much disdain from his political and literary fellow-travelers, some of whom accused him of succumbing to right-wing Hindu politics. The Saga of Dharmapuri bridges these two novels: an overtly political novel, undergirded by a distinctly spiritual worldview. 4 The temporal indeterminacy is less true of The Crow Chronicles which takes place in the contemporary present, albeit in an avian society. As a whole, the allegorical form and agenda of The Crow Chronicles seems less interesting in our context, as Lal - an avid bird-watcher and nature writer - seems more concerned with the virtuosity of writing a bird novel than with actually making a political point or intervention. In her review of The Crow Chronicles in India Today Rukmini Bhaya Nair takes him to task precisely for his lack of political gravitas: “Allegory, essentially, is not about dressing people up at all, whether in feathers, furs or what-have-you. It is about undressing them and mercilessly showing up Shakespeare's "poor, bare, forked animal" lurking beneath all that meretricious apparel.” I shall thus refer to the Chronicles only peripherally in this discussion, though I will return to Nair’s aggrieved review, and her expectations of allegory, in the conclusion of this chapter.
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The prominence of allegorical fiction in periods of censorship and authoritarian rule is not surprising. The displacement afforded by allegory as a mode of representation (i.e. one is always talking of something else) is valuable in evading censorship and/or political retaliation. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the wide-ranging fictional texts which are the focus of this project shows that the allegorical is everywhere: in the texts of the Emergency and in the way we read them. And yet, all three novels discussed here were published well after the end of the Emergency, making the allegorical mode a less obvious one. Here I argue that allegory enabled a return to a discourse of crisis and dystopia in the decade following Indira Gandhi’s assassination; revisiting the Emergency via allegory made an implicit connection between the crises of 1975 and 1984, reinforcing the sense of ongoing crisis while accentuating its political urgency.5
Scholarship on allegory has produced an often-confusing proliferation of terms to account for its various elements. Here, when talking about “allegory” I will be referring to the dual form that contains both the manifest level that I call the “allegorical narrative” or “narrative” (variously elsewhere referred to as the literal story, the surface, the vehicle, the signifier, etc.) as well as its latent, extra-textual level that I call the “referent” (but has been variously called the tenor, the meaning, the figurative level, the signified, etc.).6 In recent years, scholarship on allegory has tended to focus on what I will call the structure of allegory - its bifurcation into these two levels and the way they relate to each other (their “link”) - often at the expense of a more sustained examination of the structure (or form) of the narrative itself. In the following, I wish to follow
Angus Fletcher’s magisterial work on allegory from 1964 in paying more attention to the latter, not in opposition to the former, but in tandem with it.
5 The invocation of censorship via the allegorical mode also becomes especially dense when we consider the thematic prominence of writing and reporting in the narrative and in the rhetoric of the novels, raising questions as to what could be written, by whom, and how. These questions are addressed at length in Chapters 2 and 6. 6 Note that the referent can be fictional or not, textual or not; it is usually a narrative in its own right, but sometimes not at all.
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“[A]llegory” Fletcher argues, “is properly considered a mode; it is a fundamental process of encoding our speech”(5). While it is never present in its pure modality, allegory’s characteristics can appear in different degrees and in different forms in various texts, genres, and discourses
(314).7 And indeed, many novels - and especially those on overtly political subject matter - have prominent allegorical subtexts or referents, or contain elements of allegory, or simply can be read allegorically, and yet the allegorical is not their overriding mode.8 I would call these texts
“allegorical novels” (rather than “allegories”) and the interpretations that bring out these elements,
“allegorical readings.” In the context of my study here, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Malgonkar’s
The Garland Keepers, and Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel are allegorical novels: works of fiction that are highly allegorical, but still work primarily without recourse to the allegorical mode. By way of distinction, I would classify the three novels featured in this chapter as “generic allegories” rather than “allegorical novels” to denote novels in which the allegorical mode is so prominent that it is their most clearly identifiable genre.9 By this I mean that these texts explicitly signal their allegorical form by adhering to classic features of allegory, most prominently their iconographic character: having characters marked only (or almost only) by their role or by a single trait, often named as that which they emblematize (The Great Leader, Dharma, the Professor, etc.) and have little-to-no interiority or character development. Moreover, unlike allegorical readings, which are implicit and require knowledge and interpretation to reveal their referent or meaning, these novels go out of their way to signal their allegorical nature, repeatedly marking the artificiality of their narrative as pointing elsewhere, outside of the itself. Finally, and most importantly, as in classic
7 After all, “all literature, as Northrop Frye has observed, is from the point of view of commentary more or less allegorical, while no “pure allegory” will ever be found”(8) in fact, continues Fletcher, “one cannot help wondering if borderline cases are not going to be the norm” (10). 8 In Fletcher’s account, the less iconographic the allegorical narrative is, the more freedom it allows its reader in interpretation, the more the text becomes a “self-sufficient” “realistic” fiction (323). 9 For reasons I will later make clear, I use the term “generic” - with all of its mundane connotations - advisedly, as it is the use of allegory qua allegory, in its generic connotations and explanations, that I wish to investigate in this chapter.
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allegories, they tend to constrict meaning; the referent of these generic allegories - their referent in history - is their primary meaning, their raison d’etre.10
While the allegorical mode (a process of representation) is common in modern and contemporary fiction, it is far less prevalent as a genre (by which I mean a primary category or class of literary objects). Unlike the novel - a genre that is almost modern by definition - allegory as genre is first and foremost pre-modern. Except for a few notable examples (Orwell and Kafka come to mind), modern generic allegories seem doomed to fail because they lack the interiority, complexity, and multivalence expected of the modern form of the novel. They similar fail as a political genre because, since their meaning is always constricted by the allegorical form they do not make for a substantive representation of a complex political situation.
And yet, allegory persists, its significant presence in Emergency fiction -- as mode and as genre -- instigating my inquiry here. Framing my discussion by this concrete historical moment means that -- unlike many of the scholars with whom I am in conversation with this chapter -- I am not trying to understand the promise or failure of allegory as a universal or generic form of political intervention, but rather to approach it from the other side: given the turn to allegory to make political interventions in post-Emergency fiction, I examine the motivations for this turn and what it enables for Indian Anglophone fiction in the 1980s and 1990s.
The postcolonial allegory
To talk of allegory in the postcolonial literary context, and especially the Indian Anglophone one, is to walk into a political and representational minefield. Frederic Jameson’s much-reviled (yet not-discarded-if-only-to-be-reviled) statement that Third-world literature is necessarily a national allegory presses from one direction, while Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, self-billed as the national allegory to end all national allegories, casts its long shadow from another. In the mix is Paul
10 Fletcher, 222. For more on the emblematic characteristics of allegory and its constriction of meaning see his Chapter 1 “The Daemonic Agent”.
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de Man’s argument about the endless deferral of meaning in allegory, Walter Benjamin’s theory of allegory as the experience of historical contradiction, Angus Fletcher’s claim that allegory is always about power, Gordon Teskey’s about violence, and, perhaps most pertinently to our context, the problem of allegory as reification - whether in its Manichean form (JanMohamed) or as gendered
(Hochberg, Radhakrishnan, McClintock).
Wading into these waters, I think we can first dismiss Rushdie’s long shadow in this context.
I have already argued that as generic allegories, The Saga of Dharmapuri, The City and the River, and
The Crow Chronicles belong to a different category than Rushdie’s allegorical novel. Moreover, if indeed there is a shadow, there seems to be no textual evidence - neither in form nor content - that these allegories see themselves in any relation to it, neither hiding its shade nor distancing themselves from it. Similarly, Jameson’s famous words seem to say more - as others have already shown - about Western modes of critical reading than about the texts themselves.11 In our context here, Jameson’s insight also seems redundant. After all, the three texts go out of their way to insist that they are national allegories; one hardly needs Jameson to point this out. Moreover, even if we were to agree that in one way or another postcolonial literature is always implicitly a national allegory, we might then ask what happens when the national allegory is explicit; what happens in the doubling up of the implicit and the explicit allegorical modes? In her discussion of Moufida
Tlatli’s 1994 Tunisian film Les silences du palais, Gil Hochberg answers this question by arguing that the film “is not only an example of a national allegory [wherein the personal story is employed to tell a national story] but a platform for a theoretical discussion of this mode of representation” (38, emphasis in the original).
However, unlike Les silences du palais (which has a personal story as a vehicle for the national one), Vijayan, Joshi, and Lal do not tell a personal story that has a national meaning but
11 In the terms I set up earlier, one of the problems in Jameson’s argument is that it is not a argument about allegory, but rather an argument about (Western) allegorical readings of “third- world” literature. See also (Aijaz Ahmad, Rosemary George, Chaudhuri “Introduction”)
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rather a story that is always already national. In other words, both the allegorical narratives of these Emergency allegories and their referents are national, forcing yet another doubling up (or back) of meaning. The problem of the modern generic allegory -- that it has no interiority, less complexity and nuance than a personal story, that it is always already national -- thus creates a compelling theoretical density, one that I interests me here. Moreover, the theoretical density of identity (national allegories “all the way down”) is compounded (and confounded) by the fact that despite this identity, the meaning of allegory is always deferred or deflected, always exists elsewhere. As Hochberg explains,
allegory's full meaning is fixed in a system of images, sights, events or ideas other than those belonging to the signifier. Therefore, the link between the signifier and the signified in the allegorical structure is a link which permanently preserves a distance. According to Paul De Man, this means that the allegorical sign always relates to another sign, so that the chain of allegorical representation always lacks a definite and final stopping point: 'The meaning constituted by the allegorical sign can then consist only in the repetition of a previous sign with which it can never coincide.' Based on this approach, the relationship of estrangement between the signifier and the signified in allegory is explained by the fact that the meaning is devoid of any unified stability, because it contains a simultaneous multiplicity of correlations and contradictions”. (38)
With this in mind we return to the question that frames my inquiry in this chapter: How do allegories of the Emergency make meaning, caught as they are in the tension between the national narrative that they oppressively repeat and the evasive, almost corrupt, allegorical form in which they are written?
A way into this question is suggested by the stories these allegories tell and the way they tell them. As I have already noted, most contemporary writing about allegory - and especially in the postcolonial context - tends to focus on the allegorical structure or process of interpretation, i.e. the relationship between the narrative and its referent. In these readings, the internal structure of the narrative is a given; the rigidity and generic qualities of the allegorical narrative ostensibly preclude
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insightful analysis, especially if one is interested -- as I am -- in the relation between the text and its political and historical context. Unlike these more contemporary approaches, Angus Fletcher examines, in great detail, the cosmology -- world view -- of the allegorical narrative itself. He analyzes the way these stories are told, as well as their relationship with their latent/implied referents. Fletcher characterizes allegories by six major elements that are always in dynamic interplay with each other: 1. Allegory is non-mimetic, but rather “daemonic” or emblematic - characters and events are motivated by that quality which they represent, rather than by realistic probability or internal direction (psychology). 2. The allegory is dominated by a rigid universal order, created and maintained through an elaboration of hierarchy, and indebted to a traditionally single authority. 3. Allegories conform to two narrative “patterns”: battle (struggle) or progress
(quest) (151). 4. Allegorical causality is “magical”: think for example here of the pure spiritual center of both Saga and City, which radiates its (in both cases corrupted) magic to generate the plot
(214). 5. In addition to the story told, the allegory “projects a theme,” that is, a set of abstract ideas.
6. Allegories are complex mechanisms of semiotic control (constriction of meaning) “[A]llegory is not so much written in a fog of compulsion as it is written about a fog of compulsion” (343).
As is evident from the above, and especially if one thinks about elements 2, 3, and 6 (and about how they work in tandem), allegories are always about power, and Fetcher repeatedly insists on this. It thus follows that in his view, the allegorical narrative is profoundly political, (as in the epigraph to this chapter) even before considering its relationship to its historical context or overtly political referent. .12 But as Fletcher himself notes, since interpretation does not work in the same way for all texts, one needs to consider the nature of allegory (not just a signifying mode, but also as a story-telling mode) in its historical particularity in order to determine its mode of interpretation
(389). In what follows, I read the narratives of The Saga and The City in the context of their
12 It would be similarly tedious and unhelpful, to go on to show how uncannily the two allegories I discuss here map onto Fletcher’s account, but I do want to note that they do, if only to provide further support for the continued relevance of Fletcher’s account, and to lay the ground for my argument in the conclusion to this chapter.
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allegorical structure to understand the back-and-forth between the political promise of allegory and its failures, central to the negotiation of post-Emergency fiction with political action.
Allegorical dualities - The City and the River
Of the three allegories I discuss in this chapter, Arun Joshi’s 1990 The City and the River is the most traditional, reminiscent of medieval or early modern allegorical texts, telling a timeless tale for the sake of moral and political instruction, and implicitly offering those who learn its lessons a chance - small as it may be - at redemption, all while maintaining a cynical view of this prospect (think Pilgrim’s Progress). And yet it is also the most modernist, in its tale of philosophical alienation and reflexive literariness. The novel tells a “political fable” about a city by a river. The
City is divided into three social/political strata (corresponding to geographical elevation). Closest to the river live the mud people in their mud huts; midway are the brick people who live in “the neat rosy pink oval of the brick colonies and their special schools, clubs shopping arcades” (12).
Above these tower the “picturesque” Seven Hills, which house the Grand Master and his palace, as well as the other shining steel and glass structures of his government.13 Beyond the hills are unexplained (and ostensibly uninhabited) pyramids and above them looms the mountain which no one has ever climbed. Alongside the mud people, the brick people, and the rulers, are the boatmen who live on the River. As caretakers of the River - locus of the City’s timeless spiritual core - they are loyal to its demands and laws over any other earthly loyalty. When the Grand Master, following an ancient prophecy, attempts to entrench his power for the sake of a future Kingship, he razes the mud people’s huts to create a wide new boulevard and lays down arbitrary new laws limiting
13 In keeping with traditional allegorical practice, most of the characters in the novel - especially those in positions of power - are named by their roles and titles rather than by proper names: in addition to The Grand Master, the ruling coterie consists of the Astrologer, the Master of Rallies, etc. This feature is not limited to those in power. The leader of the boatmen is called the Head Boatman (or Headman), although she is one of only two female characters in the novel, the old man searching for truth is the Professor, and the unheeded prophet is the Great Hermit. Even the characters that are named, are meaningfully so. The unintentional martyr is Bhumiputra (son of the earth), the righteous policeman is Dharma, and his sister is Shailaja (daughter of the mountain).
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childbirth.14 The latter contradicts the law of the River and thus forces the boatmen to rebel; their rebellion in turn serves as ruse for an increasing authoritarianism and violence on the part of the
Grand Master, his son and apparent heir, and especially his corrupt government. The various ministers see this constitutional and leadership crisis as an opportunity to renegotiate their own place in the hierarchy of power in the City as well as their share in the spoils. A State of Emergency,
(called “The New Era”) is declared, a unintentional martyr created, violence escalates, until the novel ends with a flood from which only a child is saved, set afloat on a raft by the unheeded prophet (known as the Great Hermit) to begin a new civilizational cycle, as the prophecy predicted.
Other than its obvious references to the Emergency, the novel is rife with allusions - philosophical, religious, historical but primarily literary - ranging from “The Emperor’s New
Clothes” to A Passage to India, from the Mahabharata to the Bible. Simply identifying and following the trail of allusions is dizzying, ultimately forming yet another structure of eternal deferral resembling the endless chain of allegorical signification described by de Man; just as the allegorical form constantly refers to a meaning that is other from itself, so does the web of allusions cast here.15 The chain of signification itself thus becomes overdetermined, overshadowing the event recounted, or the meaning of any individual allusion.
The multiple historical referents create a similar historical overdetermination. Consider the following example: as the boat people, on strike, take over the boat-works factory , the Police
14 Both of these are reminiscent of Emergency “reforms”: slum demolitions in the name of “beautification” and sterilization in the name of “family planning”. Similarly, the policy of the “New Era” is called “the Triple Way or the Way of the Three Beatitudes” and it imagines a relationship of sovereign to citizens in family terms “the Grand Master of the City is the father and mother of the city. All citizens are his children equally.” This is of course redolent of Emergency-era rhetoric of family and kinship, as elaborated in Chapter 1 (17). 15 Indeed, even a brief synopsis of each of the three allegories is not easy to produce. All three texts are dense with events; what they lack in interiority and character development they more than make up for in plot detail. Moreover, the details are important, as they establish the allegorical referent, i.e. the relation to the Emergency. As is often the case when reading an allegory - one is tempted to compile a seemingly endless list of correspondences, which makes the task of summary even difficult than usual.
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Commissioner decides to “make an example” of the trespassers. When they refuse to leave, all hell breaks loose:
[A]ll exits were barred from the outside and all the lights switched off. For the next two minutes the machine guns sprayed the pitch dark hall with bullets. … At the end of the two minutes the lights were switched on and the gunners were given another minute to finish their job. The two hundred dead men were piled into four police trucks. … the bodies were to be dumped into the river within the next half hour. (185)
This mass shooting immediately alludes to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, often regarded as a major historical marker of the beginning-of-the-end of British colonial rule in India.16
Moreover, through this allusion, I would argue that Joshi is also alluding to the more contemporary and more politically pressing (and controversial) Operation Bluestar carried out by Indira Gandhi against Sikh separatists barricaded in the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, the same operation that led to her assassination later that year. More generally, this horrific incident is but one of many brutal authoritarian measures recounted in the novel, including imprisonment without trial, censorship, and other modes of political incarceration, torture, and control. These, argues O.P.
Mathur, in turn invoke a long global history of political violence such as the French revolution and the terror which followed it, Soviet and Chinese communist rule, and European fascism and Nazism, to name but some obvious few (90). Note however, that while Indira Gandhi’s Emergency is the novel’s clearest and most persistent referent, a shooting massacre (or massacre of any kind) was not one of its incidents.17 And thus, while the Emergency is the allegory’s referent it is not directly so. Rather than recreating its exact events and personas, the text depicts the Emergency’s
“atmosphere” or “essence,” as Mathur would have it (90-1). What all this makes clear is that the
16 One could also argue that it references Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, whose political-historical starting point is famously Adam Aziz’s political awakening at Jallianwala Bagh. 17 The only incident that it resembles is the shooting at Delhi’s Turkman Gate on April 18, 1976, in which police shot at indigent Muslim residents who were resisting the demolition of their homes and eviction to the suburbs as part of Sanjay Gandhi’s slum beautification measures. While several were killed, and the incident remains to this day an example of Gandhi’s police brutality, it does not compare in scope or in intent with the incident describe in the novel, which is closer in kind to the two mass killings in Amritsar.
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novel is not an allegory of the Emergency but an allegory of an Emergency-like situation. Note the doubling up: The City is an allegory (a relation of semblance) of an Emergency-like (another semblance) situation. The novel is not literally about the historical Emergency of the 1970s, nor is it its direct referent. And yet, through the seemingly endless chain of semblance and signification of which this is but a small example, emergency is always and everywhere. As in so many of the other texts discussed in this book, the Emergency becomes one of many emergencies, the crisis is, in effect, a constant.
This overdetermination in the novel’s allusive excess and in its allegorical form is juxtaposed with a radical indeterminacy in its plot and rhetoric. This indeterminacy is established even before the novel begins, in the 10-line prophecy which is its epigraph:
Who knows, who can read the signs, The workings of immortal time? A king I see upon a throne, In astronomer’s grove the boatmen mourn, A thing of darkness growing dark, On city walls the shadow’s mark. The river, I see, from a teacher rise, The hermit, the parrot, the teacher die. Under a rain the waters burn, To his kingdom at last the king remains. (8, italics in the original)
Several things are of note here. First, like William Blake’s “London,” to which it alludes, the epigraph straddles the allegorical and prophetic modes. It foregrounds interpretational ambiguity
(“who can read the signs”), and paradox (“immortal time” and “waters burn”) which combine in the final line (“To his kingdom at last the king remains”). This ambiguity is one of the central tenets of the narrative, explicitly characterizing the form of the city’s politics: ”the catechism of ambiguity that was the Grand Master’s style” (59). Moreover, the ambiguity of the prophecy sets not only the tone and allegorical form of the novel, but also instigates its plot: the City has two prophets, the
Astrologer and the Great Hermit, both of whom have received this prophecy from the Great
Yogeshwara. The two are depicted as opposites; the former is a member of the Grand Master’s
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coterie and uses his prophetic powers to help his boss, the latter renounces public life. Most importantly, the two interpret the prophecy in opposite ways: the Astrologer sees it as a road map to be actualized, a plan to make a King of the Grand Master. The Great Hermit sees it as a warning, a prophecy of what might happen if unethical governance persists. The Astrologer’s interpretation sets off the chain of the events in the novel, the Hermit’s leaves the discarded option as an alternative horizon, against which the former can be understood.
The motif of dualities, which prophecy inaugurates and the novel develops, establishes The
City well within the classic theological opposition of good and evil, or, as Abdul JanMohamed would have it, within the Manichean allegory which characterizes colonial discourse, and which allows the dichotomies to be reified as a set of universal differences. This is also, of course, the dominant discursive mode of the Emergency, reified both by its proponents and its opponents to this very day.18 It would thus seem that the allegorical form - while perhaps signaling a resistance or opposition - ends up reifying its Manichean structure and hence worldview. While “good” or “evil” is first assigned to one side and then to other, what remains constant is the dichotomous political structure. Rather than imagining an oppositional politics, allegory reifies a politics in which the opposition is already inscribed and contained. In literary terms, this Manichean impasse is part of allegory’s limited appeal for modern readers. In political terms, the impasse could explain the surprising return of Gandhi to power less than three years after the end of the Emergency (and, for that matter, the seeming inevitability of a Gandhi in in Indian political leadership in the 40 years since). As I will continue to show, impasse, failure, corruption, and their attendant pessimism permeate these Emergency allegories. And yet, the novels also hold on to a glimmer of political promise. In trying to understand this contradiction, I will ultimately argue that allegory’s primary’s importance to Emergency fiction — and its promise — is as a genre (and the cultural expectations and conventions that it generates) rather than as a mode of representation.
18 I talk about the Manichean structure of Emergency rhetoric - from the 70s to this day - in Part I.
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In addition to the dual prophecy, The City has a frame narrative (in the form of a Prologue and Epilogue) that establishes the novel’s dual cyclical structure and temporality. In the Prologue, which takes place in the mountain where no one has ever been, the Great Yogeshwara prepares his disciple, The Nameless One, for setting off into the world “where a new city has risen… ruled by another Grand Master“ (262). The Great Yogeshwara tells him the story of the destruction of the eponymous City and River, which becomes the novel’s main narrative; in its telling, the Great
Yogeshwara retreats into a generic third-person narrator, his diegetic role completely forgotten after the Prologue. By the novel’s end (and the Epilogue) we understand that the Nameless One from the epilogue is also the only survivor of the biblical flood which finally annihilates the City”.19
As Mathur points out, the narrative frame is mythical, borrowing from the Ramayana and the
Mahabharata a third-person narrator who, while having a role in the narrative, also gives it “a proper beginning and end” (87). The Great Yogeshwara is thus simultaneously meta-narrator and meta-physical presence in the main narrative. On the level of plot, he is also the linchpin between the civilizational cycle whose last days’ annihilation is recounted in the novel, and the one which is to begin again with The Nameless One. The Great Yogeshwara thus serves two opposing temporalities: the forward-propelling narrative time and the cyclical time of rebirth.
A similar double temporality is at work in Vijayan’s Saga in which the repulsive narrative present of the novel is framed within a narrative of prophecy and rebirth. The two temporalities - the historical and the timeless - are set out in the novel’s first chapter:
Strange stars had risen in the darkness faraway; they raced towards the skies of Dharmapuri, their prophecy written large and luminous in celestial script; their
19 “[A]ll of the sudden, the river was not a river any more. Under the all-pervasive glow of the searchlights it turned into an ancient sea, like the sea that had first condensed on the whirling planet a billion years ago” (257). Note that in a density typical of this narrative, Joshi combines biblical (flood imagery) and scientific temporalities (a billion years ago) into one myth of origin. Moreover, I would argue that his repeated use of biblical themes alludes to the biblical investment in allegorical form. An interesting comparison would be between Samuel’s Argument against Kings, (I Sam 8) and Joshi 201-1.
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light would touch the earth one baptismal night, and move on only to return in the dark ages to come. Of this plant and animal had knowledge, and they waited in joy. But in his palace in Shantigrama, capital of Dharmapuri, the President sensed the distant stellar presences, and was gripped by colic… (10)
The move from the celestial and the general “skies” to the body, from the timelessness and possibility of prophecy to realistic specificity “in his palace in Shantigrama” already betrays the novel’s double commitment: to the spiritual and the ethereal on the one hand, and to the painful lower orders of the body (“colic”) on the other. The convergence of these two temporalities — the return of the spiritual to the earthly — can only be known by plants and animals, and only to them is joy reserved; man seems irretrievably fallen.
Both City and Saga are thus deeply historical (in their subject matter and historical referents), but also a-historical (in their location outside of time, and in their cyclicality).
Interestingly, both allegories end with an explicit engagement with history as repetition, and - especially in Dharmapuri - the repetition of war. They thus foreground the tension between allegory’s repetitive structure and its historicity, or its commitment to historical particularity. Does the political allegory’s repetitiveness ultimately render it an a-historical “eternal battle of good-vs.- bad” as Hensley would have it?20 If so, is the a-historical also a-political? I would argue that that
Vijayan is trying to trace the contours of a politics that is predicated on a dialectic relationship between historical time and the timelessness of the prophetic. His stated political theology, which offers the spiritual as an antidote to the obscenity of earthly politics, is ostensibly borne out by this temporal framing; the final paragraph of the novel returns to its promise as the infantile General
Paraashara sits under a pipal tree in which he recognizes Siddhartha, and his possible salvation.21
20 Based on a cyclical understanding of historical time, and following Moretti and Arrighi, Nathan Hensely locates allegory as a form which recursively comes into historical prominence. Interesting, Hensley locates this recursivity in the historical appearance and re-appearance of allegorical form, but not within the very structure of allegory, as I am trying to point out here. 21 The pipal tree (religious fig) is considered sacred by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. The novel’s glossary defines it as “A large and spreading tree of great longevity; it was under such a tree that Gautama meditated and attained Buddhahood.” (160)
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The tremor of the twigs and leaves ceased and the Great Pipal fell silent beside the eternal Jaahnavi. Alone beneath the great Plant, the warrior sat and sorrowed for the sins of the Beast, he wept disconsolately and long. And the weapon, slung over his shoulder, lay quiet, like a child that had cried itself to sleep. (159)
And yet, this promise seems hollow, trite, and once again - ineffectual. The General, grotesquely infantile from the get-go, is still so at the novel’s end (”A child that had cried itself to sleep”), and while he weeps, his weapon is still slung over his shoulder, metonymically childish as well, but not abandoned or rejected. One need not wonder what will happen when he wakes up and finds the weapon still appended to his body; the structural rigidity of the allegorical form guarantees that characters remain within their function (here symbolized by his gun) and cannot really change.
And so, what might seem as a productive dialectic between two temporalities - the linear one of historical progression (and of plot, and of human agency as causality) as opposed to the circular one of rebirth and prophecy - in fact opens out to the peril of another, third, temporality: one of futile oscillation, which, like the prophetic, is a-historical and thus a-political. However, if the a-historical time of the prophetic still held out a thematic promise of transcendence to counter the corrupted linear one of historical progression, this third temporality is ultimately rendered static, even stagnant. In other words, while Vijayan tries to use the allegorical form to pit prophetic temporality against corrupt historical one, the novel undermines this challenge by foregrounding stagnation as the peril of allegorical cyclicality. In other words, rather than radically challenge the historical, allegory runs the risk of stabilizing it as oscillation. 22The (problematic) allegorical form of both novels once again seems to embody their political conundrum - how to provide a historical alternative without succumbing to constant oscillation - between narrative and referent in the form of the novel, and between crisis and continuity in its political history. Added to this temporal density is the complicated relationship between the time of the writing of these novels and the time
22 In Fletcher’s account, an allegory taken over by the interpretative level recedes into myth, just like one taken over by narrative level recedes into ’realistic’ fiction. In other words, this tension between the two levels, and the constant struggle over the need to restore an order always already upended constitutes allegory; ambivalence contained and thus stabilized produces the mythic mode.
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of the Emergency; the curious case of Vijayan ostensibly writing an Emergency allegory before the
Emergency23, and Joshi (and Lal) writing one long after it ended. It appears that one is always just before, during or just after Emergency, or maybe that the Emergency is, paradoxically, always.
Postcolonial abjection - the allegory of woman as subaltern
At the core of these allegories lies corruption, both political and formal. Their plot is predicated on it, the social fabric depicted disintegrates under its force, and the very ability to make meaning is undermined by it. In the following two sections, I wish to think about two promises that these allegorical narratives hold out only to dismiss, especially as those are imbricated with the rhetoric of corruption attendant to the Emergency and its discourse. The first of these promises- turned-impasse is the novels’ gender politics. All three novels are especially male-centered, and exceptionally lacking in female characters. In City, the Head Boatman’s femaleness, as well as
Shailaja’s (the righteous policemen’s sister, whose name means “daughter of the mountain”), symbolize the feminine, timeless power of the River, which is opposed to the masculine political and military power ruling (and ruining) the City. While this implies an investment in female strength, it also fosters yet another reification, perhaps the most common of them all, that of woman as spirituality itself. Coupled with the fact that all women characters in the novel are on the side of the tyrannized, and not of the tyrannical, this reminds us of Anne McClintock’s observation that the place of 'woman' within the decolonizing nationalist project overcomes the 'temporal anomaly within nationalism' by making 'woman' the sign of 'the atavistic and authentic body of national tradition' (Imperial Leather p. 359, ). Women thus simultaneously become symbols of the nation and of subaltern oppression. While ostensibly a recognition of gendered oppression, the allegorical mode thus leads to their narrative erasure (there are almost no women in the allegories)
23 see my argument of Nayantara Sahgal’s “prefiguration” of the Emergency in chapter 1
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as well as a symbolic one: if woman is not woman but oppression incarnate, if she is but a sign or symbol of something else, what happens to women themselves?
This essentializing of woman as subaltern-spirit-of-the-nation, and the consequent effacement of women themselves, becomes even more fraught in Vijayan’s Saga, where the female characters are not only oppressed but also painfully and consistently abject - politically, sexually, domestically; they are constantly and consistently only sexual objects. Most prominent is Laavanya, the kitchen-maid of the Minister of Sorrowing, who repeatedly rapes and exploits her. Trying to protect herself, she appeals to her rapist’s principles as “a Third World radical” in vain hope that the logic of decolonization will apply to her subjection: “May Your Grace be pleased to free my nipples, because freedom is the recognition of necessity, as Friedrich Engels has wisely said” (30).
The Minister refuses and compares her to foreign (implicitly colonial) women: “Your posterior relegates to insignificance the behinds of Feringhee countesses” (31). Laavanya is thus reminded that both national struggle and class struggle are not about her liberation, but about that of her rapist. “The Third World radical” establishes his dominance by her very subjection; national and class liberation not only do not liberate women, they are constituted in part by their repeated subjection of women. The logic of substitution (her posterior for a foreign countess’s) makes clear women’s structural role as objects; this structural position ensures the constancy and stability of the political order during the process of decolonization, but also through ensuing crises. As is evident by the repeated sexual assaults on Laavanya - by the Minister of Sorrows, as well as by almost every other man she encounters - the worse the crisis, the more female abjection needs to be reinforced. Masculinity - acquired through the repeated sexual subjection of women - is that which anchors, almost desperately, political stability and continuity from the colonial period into the postcolonial present and future.
Moreover, Laavanya’s attempt to think historically and act politically, to insert herself into the body politic, to be the body politic, are roundly dismissed, rendering her as body only, object
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only, abject only. Even more cruelly, it is her class-consciousness that leads to her downfall. As he is raping her, the Minister reveals to her that his wife is being “had” by the President. The solidarity she feels with her rapist “Ah so this man too experiences sadness” leads her - cruelly and ironically - to use the temporary agency she has gained (due to the Minister’s self-pity) to participate in her own rape (32, italics in the original). “The sharing of sadness was the virtue of her class; she could do so even with those that came to take her as they would a whore; it was in such sadness that she began stroking the minister’s feeble sex” (32). Even when Siddhartha attempts to save her she retains her position as abject (if now not sexualized), powerless and dependent on the agency of the holy man.
If the representation of women in the novel as tyrannized is meant to elicit social critique and thus provoke political change, I would argue that the mode of this representation — the way it is carried out — ultimately signals very corruption of this promise. Indeed, to register the hollowness, even fallacy of the apparent repentance of the infantile General (which I discussed in the previous section), one need only return to the final chapter’s opening paragraph, which opens with Laavanya, dying while “lying on the slabs of the prison floor, [having been] raped over and over by her captors” (156). Even in this state [I have spared you most of the harrowing description]
Laavanya is still “ministering… the scents of motherhood” to the “smothered generations cr[ying] out from the wreckage”(156). As the novel winds down to a close, we get the sense that the events it recounts are nowhere near an end. As an elite man (the General) weeps in sorrow for the sins “of the Beast” (the Beast made him do it), a tyrannized woman ministers to the oppressed via her animistic “scent of motherhood,” reifying her role as conduit to others’ salvation, never her own.
These two reified tropes, gesturing perhaps to the promise of the celestial timelessness and rebirth laid out in the novel’s opening, signify - to my mind - the political failure of this promise. The novel, I
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would argue, is ultimately an allegory of the corruption of the political (and hence its failure) in both its modes and temporalities, historic and spiritual.24
Corrupting Allegories - Disgust
The bleakness of the novels’ corrupt sexual and gender politics finds its affective counterpart in the overwhelming disgust which permeates every facet of Saga, to the point where it becomes an affective correlate to allegory itself - in its starkness, and its ostensible lack of complexity and ambivalence. Reading The Saga through Hayden White and Northrop Frye, Dhar classifies the novel as satire, a parody of the romantic plot in which the protagonist is either cruel or tyrannical (rather than heroic) or a victim, the world is characterized by ugliness, cruelty and oppression (exposing reprehensible qualities rather than reaffirming cherished values and ideals.).
Dhar’s description of satire here seems to accord with Fletcher’s characterization of the modern allegory, which “tends downward” in its imagery, affect of disgust, and pessimistic outlook, but also in its form, wherein the hero progresses negatively “into a more restricted range of action” (159).
“The scenes and episodes which constitute the plot of satire” writes Dhar, are in effect repetitive in their essence; they only help dramatize the patterns of grossness the satirist wants to attack” (229).
While I want to hold onto the allegorical form rather than the satirical, I find Dhar’s use of “attack” instructive, especially when we think of the form and politics of disgust.
In its obscenity and vulgarity, The Saga is first and foremost shocking, an attack on both sense and sensibility. A political reading of the ribaldry, eschatology, and sheer focus on orifices seems to demand a Bakhtinian carnivalesque, its anarchic vulgarity serving as a mode of subversion or undoing.25 And yet, as Dhar points out, such a reading does not seem to work in the novel. “The
24 In this I would seem to join many of Vijayan’s contemporaries who were disappointed in the retreat from the political and refuge in the spiritual in his later novels. . 25 Maria Rajan Thaliath, for example, argues that Vijayan “uses satire (in the lines of Bakhtin’s ‘Carnivalesque’) and ‘grotesque bodily images’ to depict the plight of a nation state held to ransom by the ruling elite” (41). She especially notes the novel’s criticism of the Indian press' acquiescence
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pleasures of the body, such as eating, drinking, and sex, which stand for freedom and liberation in folk traditions, to which Dharmapuri claims to aspire, are made by Vijayan into symptoms of oppression and perversion. Indulgence in The Saga, does not indicate freedom and joy, as it does in the Carnivalesque celebrations in Rabelais, but cruelty and subjugation” (235). Bakhtin’s readings depend on an inherent multiplicity and complexity that, as I have shown, is simply not borne out by this narrative, which imposes a single unequivocal, oppressive reading. Instead, we might turn to
Achille Mbembe, who offers a postcolonial political theory of vulgarity that might explain this failure. Pace Bakhtin, Mbembe shows that in the postcolony, the vulgar and obscene are not subversive parodies of state power, but rather a discourse used by state power “to institutionalize itself, in order to achieve legitimation and hegemony”(3).
According to Mbembe, while the grotesque and obscene can begin as a covert — even allegorical — counter-discourse to power, its images, idioms, and categories soon come to be shared and used as much by the dominant as by the dominated. The discourse of obscenity becomes the reigning metaphor for the political, already appropriated by the state power it may have tried to subvert. Indeed, this process is captured perfectly by Vijayan. Compare for example
Vijayan’s narrative of the declaration of the State of Emergency in The Saga, with Mbembe’s description of this process (both quoted at length for comparison’s sake).
A great terror seized the President then, and he howled, ‘O, they will sack my children, they will sack them all!’ and the Council of Ministers joined the lament. He paced back and forth , and from his behind syringed the steaming hieroglyphs of his anger. When he had done with this preface, he stood tense and the Ministers, trembling, told one another, ‘A Proclamation, it is a proclamation!’ the President bent forward and crowed and out came a turd as big as a sewer rat; and with that was promulgated what came to be known as the State of Crisis. …’My beloved people,’ the President said in a midnight broadcast, ‘give me your freedoms, henceforth let them be hidden inside me, because it is to rob them of you that the insidious enemy has penetrated us.’ … to censorship, of India’s non-aligned status in the 1960s and 70s, (maintaining a facade of communism — loyalty to the “Tartar Republic” — while enjoying the spoils of capitalism — being on the payroll of the “White Confederacy”), and of the foreign media.
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The Palace brought out colorful stamps of the President squatting among heaps of carrots and lettuce, munching on the vegetables and defecating - a picture of deep and enduring peace which reinforced the people’s faith in their pacific Presidency. There was praise all around for the President’s resilience and courage, but the most articulate endorsement came from Prava which said, ‘Dharmapuri has done away with the last obstacle which Imperialism had left in the way of liberation, the law of Habeas Corpus. Now Dharmapuri joins those who march in the grand parade of human progress.’ The Communards of Dharmapuri welcomed those abridgments of their rights with a fervour that dismayed even the Partisans of the Holy Spirit. (23)
The obesity of men in power, their impressive physique and, more prosaically, the flow of shit which results from such a physique - these appeal to a people who can enjoy themselves with mockery and laughter, and, sometimes, even join in the feast. They thus become themselves part of a system of signs that the commandement leaves, like tracks, as it passes on its way, and so make it possible to reconstruct the times and places in which it attempts to colonize the common people’s imaginary. And, because of this, one can find those signs reproduced, recurring even in the remotest, tiniest comers of everyday life - in relations between parents and children, between husbands and wives, between police and their victims, teachers and pupils. […] In the end, whether the encounter is “masked” or not is of little consequence. What is important is that, as a specific trajectory of domination, the postcolony strikes precisely in its earthiness and its verbosity. In fact, the commandement derives its “aesthetics” from its immoderate appetite and the immense pleasure that it encounters in plunging in ordure. The sodomite gesture readily goes hand in hand with the orgy and buffoonery. The body of the despot, his frowns and smiles, his decrees and edicts, the redundancy of his public notices and communiques repeated over and again: these are the primary signifiers. It is these that have force, that get interpreted and re-interpreted, and feed back further significance into the system. (Mbembe 10)
In short, vulgarity, initially subversive, becomes the sign of the political and is thus appropriated by power, which is in turn internalized: “when, in their desire for splendour, the masses join in madness and clothe themselves in the flashy rags of power so as to reproduce its epistemology; and when, too, power, in its own violent quest for grandeur and prestige, makes vulgarity and wrongdoing its main mode of existence” (Mbembe 30). Tragically, the coveted
“attack” of satire envisaged by Dhar (and maybe even by Vijayan) does not unmask: those who laugh, says Mbembe, are not resisting the sovereign, but, by bearing witness to its vulgar performance of authority, end up bolstering state power.
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But maybe disgust is not meant to be vague, carnivalesque or subversive. Maybe its political power, as Sianne Ngai hints, lies in its non-pluralistic, non-subversive, not complex, direct-and- hence-vulgar form of attack.
Disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully. But [of all] the negative affects … the poetics of disgust seems to have drawn us closer to the domain of political theory, perhaps even of political commitment. … In its intense and unambivalent negativity, disgust thus seems to represent an outer limit or threshold of what I have called ugly feelings, preparing us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions. (Ugly Feelings 353-4)
Vijayan, I think, would concur, especially if we note that in Ngai’s formulation disgust does two separate things: it “diagnoses” social powerlessness, and then prepares us for political efficacy. The two are not necessarily identical; while diagnosis can lead to political action, it is not, in itself, politically efficacious.
Indeed, to understand how disgust works with revulsion as its narrative goal, one must read
Dharmapuri in the context of the Nātyashāstra, a Sanskrit treatise which provides a literary theory of the emotion (Dhar, 229). As Vinay Dharwadker explains, this classical precursor to affect theory states that “an artwork should make a protagonist’s sthāyī bhāva or enduring emotional states … its primary object of representation” (1387). Its “pedagogical goal is to equip the poet or performer with the skills that are necessary to aesthetically capture the ‘concentrated flavor’ or rasa of a specific emotional state and communicate that rasa in a text or performance in such a way that an audience experiences extraordinary pleasure in ‘relishing’ it” (1387). In order to do so the poet must carefully represent “a combination of the existential causes, ensuing emotions, and auxiliary emotions” of the foundational emotional states. Of the eight stable foundational emotions with eight corresponding rasas (flavors or essences), Vijayan here deploys the rasa of bībhatsa
(revulsion), which corresponds with the emotional state of juguspsa (disgust, hatred). This emotional state, as Dharwadker points out, is an existential and long-lasting one (1384) and thus suggests that The Saga’s wallowing in revulsion is fundamental, rather than superficial, temporary
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or carnivalesque. Disgust here points to a substantive endemic crisis - a politics of revulsion - rather than revulsion for the sake of shock, titillation-value, or unmasking. As a figure of political corruption, disgust is here - once again - a constant, rather than an aberration.
Returning to the lengthy quotation above we recognize that the State of Crisis - proclaimed through “a turd as big as a sewer rat” - does not in fact mark a departure from the norm, but more of it. The people of Dharmapuri have been eating the shit of political corruption (literally, as well as figuratively) for a long time. “The Crisis had come to stay, gently fearsome and familiar like the tiger in the neighborhood zoo” (23, my emphasis). One understands that the problem is not with the
Crisis, but with its familiarity. In its long, drawn-out exploration of disgust, The Saga seems to be pointing out that — like defecation, which is also constant, cyclical and non-spectacular — shocking is the new normal and the revolting prompts no revolt. This then is the paradox of corruption: by definition aberrant, it always implies a pure state from which it deviates. And yet, corruption is a constant - the non-corrupt, unalloyed state far more of a political anomaly that corruption ever is. Returning to Mbembe, we can put this differently: if corruption (figured here as vulgarity) comes to be the sign of power, then its unmasking does not lead to its downfall, but rather to its fortification — indeed, it’s proliferation.26
Similarly, another important parallel between the allegorical form and tyrannical government pointed out in the novel is the strict control of information and even stricter constriction of interpretation. Indeed Fletcher ties the two together, saying that allegory’s rigidity often follows from its agnostic subject matter. Implicitly responding New Criticism’s disdain for the hierarchical, constricted form of allegory, he argues that “Allegories are far less often the dull systems that they are reputed to be than they are symbolic power struggles. If they are too often
26 Think Trump (see Berlant):
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rigid, muscle-bound structures, that follows from their involvement with authoritarian conflict”
(23). In other words, allegory’s prominence when writing in or about periods of authoritarian rule is not only to evade political control - in the form of control of information and interpretation - but to dramatize it.
Joshi’s City provides a useful meta-allegorical moment to think about this dramatization of the struggle over information and interpretation when it relates an epistemological crisis in the city. Note first this exchange between the Police Commissioner and the Master of Rallies (whose job it is to collect information):
“A girl claims to be his sister but there is no evidence to prove this. In the opinion of the police the girl probably served Bhumiputra as a courier.” “But she could be his sister”, interjected the Master of Rallies. “Could be? Could be? Anything could be anything, Master of Rallies. But, surely, you must give me credit for intelligence and for saying what I’m saying.” (43)
Evident here is a contest between the two officials over ways of knowing; possibility and conjecture are marshaled as evidence, as they indeed later become:
“Citizens are either presumed to be innocent and we have to prove their guilt or the citizens are assumed potential criminals and they have to prove their innocence. Bhumiputra was far from innocent but in any case this city follows the second system, that is to say, it is the citizen who has to prove his innocence. That is precisely the meaning of the New Era” (Joshi 83).
The meaning of the New Era (Emergency) is a radical shifting of the burden of proof: the presumption of innocence is now a presumption of guilt, and citizens have to prove their innocence
(a patently impossible demand). This is of course a precise - if exaggerated - account of the function of administrative detention, one of the most important features of Gandhi’s Emergency rule.27
The next stage is to marshal doubt to posit a conspiracy: “a man called Bhumiputra has organized a conspiracy or is an important link in it. The Commissioner’s report leaves little room for doubt” (62). The very absence of evidence for the conspiracy provides proof of its conspiratorial
27 Under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA, passed in 1971, but only significantly put to use in the Emergency), thousands, largely those from opposition parties (from the left or the right) or those otherwise perceived as political opponents were incarcerated.
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nature. The fact of a rumor’s circulation becomes proof of the its veracity, thus engendering a paranoia when it - the conspiracy first posited, then rumored, then claimed as fact - cannot be located. Most importantly and very quickly, this paranoia then becomes valuable as a tool of governance and control. 28 A traitor - Bhumiputra - is marked and used to rally the citizens:
“My children, do you know Master Bhoma [Bhumiputra’s nickname]?” For a moment the crowd seemed uncertain, then an angry growl went up from the section next to the dais [where the government cheerleaders were standing] … those who were ignorant of Bhoma were told about him by the band of cheer-leaders, who had suddenly materialized… and now demanded Master Bhoma’s head. (99)
But if all of this has proceeded according to well-known blueprints for authoritarian propaganda, the novel now posits an epistemological twist. Because propaganda and its logic are so well-known and recognizable, because they have become the norm, nobody believes any of it, even the parts that are true: “Everyone considers Master Bhoma to be a figment of imagination, conjured up by the Grand Master to convince the city of the imminence of trouble: assassinations, uprisings, bloodshed. And thus to prove the necessity of a strong arm at helm” (111). In other words, the logic of propaganda is so pervasive that the citizens already unmask it (i.e. read allegorically, for its subtext rather than for its literal text) leading to the collapse of a shared, and hence reliable, system of signification, a collapse common to totalitarian regimes. The problem of corruption is that it eats away at our epistemological and ethical foundations.
We thus return to allegory, now read in its de Manian variant, in which allegory itself is figured as a corrupt form, its series of doubles, deferrals, and repetitions creating a proliferation of meaning, one which points to the inevitable failure of referential meaning and of representation itself. Thematically speaking, the novels show how corruption corrodes our ethical and epistemological foundations. In this case , the structure of paranoia (the constant need to unveil a latent meaning) recasts the central question of my book (crisis vs. continuity) as what might be
28 It is also cynically seized upon and appropriated by opposition within the cabinet: “Bhumiputra is the most precious thing we have” says the wily Education Adviser to his son, when he realizes that the (non-existent) conspiracy could be used for an internal coup. (62)
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described, in a more Benjaminian vein, the inevitability of mourning of an immanent historical contradiction
Allegorical Dualities Redux
As we make our way towards our conclusion, I would like to return to our earlier discussion of dualities, noting that The City and The Saga, like all allegories, are structured on two dualities - one thematic (between Good and Evil) and the other formal (between the allegorical story and its extra-textual referent). This doubled duality creates another compelling density, again recognized by Fletcher, in which allegory is not a simple metaphor extended into a narrative (thus retaining its rigidity), but rather one made more complex.29 In this way, allegory (and especially modern allegory) retains the stability, order and authoritativeness which are the effect of its rigid logical structure and theological underpinnings. However, it also harbors an ambivalence which challenges its very rigidity. Viewed this way, an allegory is in constant struggle over the need to restore an order (both formal and thematic) upended. Note that this is different from the de Manian reading where meaning (or meaninglessness) lies in an endless regression of signification, but rather one which I would call dialectical: for Fletcher, for Vijayan, for Joshi, even for Lal, restoring political order is ultimately an important goal, even if this order is unattainable. For these writer, the attempt to restore order as a political ideal is an ongoing critical process. In fact, as I will soon argue, what these post-Emergency novels do — through their generic allegories — is less to try and restore order and more to question the nature of the order that needs restoring.
We thus turn to exploring these two dualities in tandem, the dual allegorical structure superimposed on the thematic and formal doubles of its narrative. Conveniently City — in yet another meta-allegorical moment — has already done this for us, by placing an allegory (or parable) at the center of its narrative. As the Emergency becomes more and more restrictive, the
29 In Fletcher’s formulation, “an extended piece of ironical discourse, in which complete discourse is pervaded by doubt, double meaning and ironic detachment” (84).
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young Bhumiputra, whom I earlier called the novel’s unintentional martyr, begins to tell a parable - which we recognize as Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” but which the novel treats as an original tale - about power and its unmasking:
He recited the story of the naked king as though it were a ballad out of the city’s hoary past and he an ancient bard who had emerged from out of the depths of the Great river to remind the city of a long-forgotten truth. By the end of the day he had begin to sound like the Astrologer when he recited verses in the ancient tongue that no one understood. But everyone understood the young man and listened to him in silence. (129)
This moment of auto-allegorizing works two ways: within the novel’s narrative, the naked Emperor is the King, and his corruption is successfully exposed, thus “everyone understood.” But the parable also functions as an allegory of allegory itself, in its attempt to expose political corruption and fraud. In the context of The City, the fable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” calls attention to the allegory within which it is told. More substantively, as a wise old man explains to Bhumiputra, the parable indicates that both allegories are failures because unmasking - transparency - does not help:
"Don't you see? The citizens call the king naked. The king knows he is naked but does not care. He challenges the citizens to do what they will. And the citizens know they can do nothing. Willy nilly they must submit to him, naked though he is.” (148)
In other words, Joshi, like Vijayan before him, signals the failure of allegory as a political form. Its promise of unmasking - of revealing the literal truth through the figurative allegory - is rendered moot when the truth is already known to be false and yet still carries with it the value and power of truth. And yet again, the old man insists that there is power in the telling that is not the power of unmasking: “If men did nothing but tell each other this parable they would begin to feel freer, lighter and this cloud of fear would lift” (151). And indeed, the telling of the parable becomes far more important than its interpretation, its performative value eclipsing its truth value:
Bhumiputra’s recitals have begun to reflect the sorrow that fills him. It is not a children’s story any more but speaks of a darkness that spreads farther each day, swallowing the city, the river, the sky itself. The parable still brings laughter and the hold of the shadow is momentarily broken. But soon its grip is back on every heart.
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Even if the king is naked, the parable tells them nothing, nothing whatsoever can be done about it because to be ruled by a naked king is their only fate. From the realms of a children’s story the parable has passed into the lore of a land of sorrow and despair that the boatmen had never known before. (175)
Once again, this time in the affective register of the telling and retelling, the temporality of the political plight slips from that of a singular crisis - a recognition that “the king is naked” - to a constant state of affairs, “to be ruled by a naked king is their only fate.” It thus dawns on the reader that the allegory - of the parable, of the novel - is but a ruse, or a distraction, and that the real referent is not the Emergency, but its dialectical counterpart - the normal or the usual.
The idea of failure has been a constant throughout this chapter. I have shown that the novels are variously allegories of failure, or failed allegories; their failures are variously local, specific to these texts, or specific to Emergency texts. At other times failure has appeared to be endemic to allegory as a too rigid or too corrupt form. Viewed from this angle one could also wonder whether the corruption with which these texts are obsessed, inhere in its referent (the hopelessly corrupt historical reality whose story they tell) or in the narrative (the way they tell this story)? Or maybe it is in the allegorical structure - that which creates the connection or relationship between the two?
And yet, despite their inherent failures and generic weaknesses, allegories not only persisted, but were revitalized in post-Emergency India to facilitate political engagement, in the same way as the
Emergency was returned to as political subject matter in the years following Indira Gandhi’s assassination and post-Congress era politics. This return to allegory and the return to the
Emergency are also forms of engagement with the problem or paradox of corruption; the allegories use the corruption inherent in their mode, superimposed over the corruption described in their narratives to signal political possibility after all. Post-Emergency allegories, I would thus argue , build on their formal peculiarities and the history of their form - on their generic qualities - to become a mode of action, rather than representation.
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To understand what I mean we return one last time to Joshi’s The City. At the end of the novel, the Great Yogeshwara seems to capture the force of allegory when he describes the new civilization in terms of the old:
The men have other names but the forces they employ remain unchanged. And into all this when you go you will, perhaps, be known as another Hermit of the Mountain… To someone this replay, the repetition of things, might appear as a charade, a joke. But then, whoever said the good Lord did not have humour (262).
While he appeals to what appears to be a monotheistic God, the logic that guides the Great
Yogeshwara lies in the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain temporality of rebirth (a similar logic, as you may remember, appears in Vijayan’s novel):
“The main thing is to prevent this endless repetition, this periodic disintegration. But to achieve that we need purity. … [T]he city must purify itself if it is not to dissolve again.” “Purify itself of what?” “Of egoism, selfishness, stupidity.” “But how shall I succeed where the Hermit failed?” “The question is not of success or failure; the question is of trying”(263).
The “question of trying,” I would argue, is that which brings these writers to allegory, despite their explicit awareness of its limitations. In other words, “the question of trying” is akin to Vijayan’s
“search for civilizational alternative” and is the paradoxical logic at the heart of allegory — a form doomed to “endless repetition”. It is also the logic at the heart of Emergency politics, in which the repetition of crisis is the only constant. This “question of trying,” intimately tied as it is to humor, would takes us back to Vijayan’s ribald allegory as a mode of “trying”: an act that is an intervention in the political rather than a representation of politics.
After all, allegory can function not only as a mode of representation but also as a genre, as a certain set of conventions and expectations, within which its form and content garners meaning. To think about this we might find it useful to go back to the review quoted earlier of The Crow
Chronicles (see footnote 4), which is instructive as to what the allegory is expected to do, post-
Emergency: “Allegory”, argues Nair in India Today from 1996 “is not about dressing people up at all, whether in feathers, furs or what-have-you. It is about undressing them and mercilessly showing up
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Shakespeare's "poor, bare, forked animal" lurking beneath all that meretricious apparel.” In The
City’s recasting of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” we have seen that, contra Nair, allegory’s
“unmasking” might be doomed to fail. But my point (reading with Joshi and Vijayan) is that despite our knowledge of this failure, allegory still and consistently raises expectations of narrative as political action.
And indeed, despite their diverse approaches and theories of allegory, Fletcher, Mbembe, de Man, Benjamin, Hochberg, Jameson, JanMohamed, McClintock, and Hansen all agree that modern allegory comes to function first and foremost as a sign of the political. No matter whether it represents political failure or fails in its political representation, the one constant of allegory as a genre is that it signals not only politics, but political urgency, that it even demands political action.30
Allegory-as-genre moves from mode (allegory as representation) to a horizon of political expectations. It functions not as a set of stable characteristics, or as logical structure, but as radically historical and contingent set of expectations that are determined by past iterations of the genre, all the while being constantly modified by the expectations of the contemporary. In other words, as Joshi’s novel makes clear, the allegory that he is writing refers to the Emergency, but also to Vijayan, Animal Farm, Pilgrim’s Progress, Biblical allegory, the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Together they perform the “blind search for a civilizational alternative” (as Vijayan would have it); their success ultimately is inconsequential. As Joshi suggests, what matters is only the fact of their trying.
In writing their generic allegories Vijayan and Joshi signal their urgent commitment to writing as a mode of political action. Vijayan does so by the shock of repulsion, Joshi by the density of literary allusion. Both of them thus pit the failure of allegory as a mode against the expectations of allegory as genre. The ostensible referent of their allegories — that which they are exposing — is
30 Fletcher argues that allegory is a genre of constriction: in its constricted thematics, in its constriction of interpretative freedom, but also in that it demands a form of action from the reader “after he read the work, rather than during the period when his reading experience is going on” (326).
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the atrocity of Emergency rule, the corruption of order and hierarchy that is signaled by the suspension of democratic process. The order that is implicitly being evoked — the non-corrupt state — is modern democratic India. But, written well after 1977, after democracy has ostensibly been restored and corruption ended, the temporality of and in these novels belies this ostensible aim. In effect, I would argue, both Vijayan and Joshi are writing against the very system or order whose hierarchy they are trying to restore. In other words, the failure of their allegories signal the failure of the political system, here the promise of a “return” to democratic India in the post-
Emergency years. When Vijayan says that “the terror of perversion sets the basic tenor for the narrative” (Pillay 95), I think he means that the common mean of “order” and “corruption” have in themselves been corrupted. These generic allegories thus create a second order of allegory and of political comparison, where the Emergency is the allegorical narrative, and the politics-as-usual, the
“normal” is its referent. Deeply pessimistic, but not nihilistic, Vijayan and Joshi make their political interventions (offer a civilizational alternative) by holding on to the promise of order, and signal that promise by holding on to the promise of allegory.
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