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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 27, New Delhi, June 19, 2021

Book Review: Subramanian on Moulik’s ’Rogues among the Ruins’

Friday 18 June 2021


‘Rogues among the Ruins’

by Achala Moulik

December 2021 | 312 pages

ISBN: 978-93-89136-69-2

Olive Turtle - Niyogi Books

The novel by Achala Moulik titled ‘Rogues among the Ruins’, Neogi Publishers, was debated recently at a book discussion at the IIC New Delhi. I was among the five discussants, including the distinguished author who explained why she wrote the novel. The discussion was stimulating.

The author was educated abroad and took a degree from the London University. She joined the Indian Administrative Service and was DG of the Archaeological Survey India.
She has published books on political and cultural history, novels and an acclaimed play Pushkin’s Last Poem, performed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. She received the prestigious Pushkin Medal from the Russian President in 2011. She also received the Sergei Yesenin Prizes in 2013. Among other things she has written an excellent book on the Russian evolution.

What should an archaeologist do when tempted by the lure of antiquity smuggling? How can he prevent the cynical exploitation of culture? When a morally upright civil servant locks horns with a cabal of corrupt bureaucrats, can victory be wrested by upholding Dharma? He had law justice and Dharma on his side. The only thing he lacked was time. Time. It was slipping away.

The novel portrays the conflict of civil servants caught in the conflict between ideals and a thirst for success. It adopts the style of great masters like Gogol and Cervantes, who in their search for truth evoke laughter and tears.

The first part of the novel is a gripping fictionalised account of the workings of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the painful predicament of a dedicated but naïve scholar faced with temptations. The scholar’s son, a morally indifferent bureaucrat chronicles a later era in the second part. Through tawdry dramas, administrative acrobatics of sycophants and hypocrites, he encounters the sordid reality of powerful men and women who think they rule the country.

With sardonic humour, sympathy and reluctant respect, the novelist takes the reader through Glory Road, where principles are discarded by the ambitious, the proud encounter humiliations, the idealists are scorned, and sometimes those with stubborn strength, overcome ordeals.

This is an outstanding novel.

The book, which is in fictional form, examines in the first part, narrated by Ilango, one of the officials in the prestigious but less understood Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), who provides an account of the background and the recent goings on in the organisation. The second part is a broader discussion of the state of affairs in the Indian bureaucracy after Independence. A leading character in the novel, Raman, is the narrator in the second part and links the two parts. 

The British rulers, a few years before India’s independence, recruited the army-trained archaeologist Julius Norton, based in Nineveh, Mesopotamia, to become the DG of the ASI in India, which has had many distinguished predecessors. Although somewhat reluctant to move from his impressive position in Nineveh, Norton is attracted by the idea of working in India, famous for its archaeologically impressive past, and arrives in India with wife Athena and two children. The British viceroy and his secretary would like Norton to spy for the Raj in India’s Northwest to meet the threat from the emerging communist regime in Russia. But Norton proves too much of a scholar to do so.

Norton, as a true scholar seeks answers about Time, about events and about the progress and regress of Man. archaeology is his handmaiden. He sees his job as the protection preservation of the about 5000 monuments in the Indian subcontinent: a monumental job. Athena and Norton travel widely in the country visiting various sites. They follow the trail of Alexander of Macedon. They spend time on the banks of the Indus. They meet Elangovan, Assistant Archaeologist and narrator and his son Raman and listens to Vishnu Rawat head of the antiquity branch of the ASI. They learn about the greatest discovery of 20th century archaeology: Mohenjodaro and Harappa, cities of the Indus Valley civilisation and its possible links to Vedic Culture. They visit sites of the twin cities and the first excavations of Indus Valley Civilisation. And read the extant excavation reports on ancient sites. Their observations reveal a historical enigma. A large number of excavation reports have not been written. The failure to write excavation reports is an unforgivable act of destruction of historical evidence.

For example, a team of ASI workers sent to the ancient port of Tamralipta on coastal Bengal excavate a cluster of statuettes including an exquisite figurine of a yakshi, a celestial dancer. This was taken to an excavation camp to record its provenance. The statue was never seen again. Two archaeologists of the ASI were involved in its removal. Norton and Athena find that some archaeologists are not only skilled in digging up the past but also in burying it.

The author notes several serious negative trends in the working of the ASI. But Norton and Athena had to leave India, when it becomes independent. Our author portrays the dark picture that emerges in the ASI after India’s independence.

The most interesting character in the book is Dr. N Sauhrab, recently recruited as Director of Antiquity. He emerges on page 228 of the novel. He is very competent, knows his subject and is very inquisitive. His interest in excavations and their reports irks the DG and his predecessors. He visits ancient sites to see things for himself. He reports to the home secretary that excavation reports on several sites had not been written.

At the Indus Valley sites he was told that many antiquities had been removed. Very few archaeological reports were found at Kalibangan. A vast amount of Mathura sculpture of the Kushan Era had found their way to foreign museums. He found some artifacts from an ancient site at a London museum. There seemed a conspiracy of silence to bury the past without revealing it, to remove physical reminders of civilisations without recording it so that the finds could find their way to foreign museums and art collectors. The failure to write excavation reports is more than a lapse in administrative procedure.

Five former DGs of ASI formed a group to get rid of Sauhrab. He finds it is no longer possible to ask questions. Political freedom has not brought intellectual freedom. Due to persistent harassment and massive larceny, he is forced to leave India and go to the UK to pursue his study of the Indus Valley civilisation as a material counterpart of the Vedic Intellectual civilisation. This was a devastating loss for India.

Interestingly, the author displays the flair of a detective novelist, when she reveals (pp.229-244) that Dr. Sauhrab is really the illegitimate but brilliant son of Professor Julius Norton. Sauhrab is forced to leave the ASI when conspiracies are hatched against him by his rivals and joins his father in the UK to pursue his own academic studies in archaeology. This part of the novel proves most interesting and qualifies the novelist for a high literary award such as the Booker Prize.

The second part of the novel is treatise on the various administrative acrobatics which even an honest bureaucrat is forced to indulge in contemporary India. This part also includes the story of an honest bureaucrat in the defence ministry who is harassed and sought to be punished for his integrity in a prolonged battle against an unethical defence deal with a foreign agency. He manages to survive after undergoing a traumatic period in his professional life.

(Author: KS Subramanian is a scholar and former DG of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Tripura)

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