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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 30 New Delhi July 14, 2018

Historical Novel of Fascinating Sweep

Sunday 15 July 2018


by Alok Sinha

Dangerous Dispatches by Achala Moulik; published in 2016 by National Book Trust, India; pages 379; Price: Rs 410.

A gripping historical novel, written by an Indian, and yet faraway from the 21st century battles of Growth versus Development, of Secularism versus Hindutva et al. Full of romances and intrigues woven around quickly developing international events rewriting national boundaries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia from the last quarter of the 20th century.

But penned as it is by an Indian, its also moves around India and Indians very knowledgeably. And as the author is very well informed on matters Russian and Central Asian (having also written an authoritative account of the Great October Socialist Revolution), it skilfully jumps in and out of the violent redrawing of national boundaries and domestic governments in last three decades which has made Asia a veritable zone.

There is Shivan Kamboj, a bit transitory in his emotional sweeps, but admirably courageous in his independent line of thinking, which as a journalist lands him in jail during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

There is Alexei Rumyantsev who like many Russians sincerely thought their alliance with Afghanistan would liberate that oppressive feudal order. The chain of events led to an end-result not expected either in Russia or the West—that the burden of Russian intervention would precipitate the fall of the Sovet system. More tragically, it saw the rise of Islamic fundamentalism promoted by the West to counter Soviet hegemony in Central Asia which is now eating into the West’s security systems like cancer, suppressed in one country only to cultivate its cells in another. And the disorder in Yeltsin’s Russia in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviets, picturesquely depicted through the personal vicissitudes of Alexei’s doctor-wife, Ludmilla, is gripping.

Prince Farid Brezhna, a Westernised Afghan, sees the local warlords and the Mujahideen (both propped up by the West to counter Communist thoughts) as obscurantist and hence antagonises them. His lands are taken over and wife, Anahita, violated and disfigured, a violent preview of the Taliban and ISIS habits in the 21st century.

Achala Moulik has penned a fascinating historical sweep, where the London School of Economics during the Cuban crisis of October 1962 is the gathering-point of the main characters. And the night of Kennedy’s (still unexplained) murder is when Shivan tells Romona of his uncharted marriage plans, taking three years to finally marry her in a Venice gondola! In due course, the scene shifts to India, where on return Shivam and Romona discover the problems of chaos (thrown up by the uncertainties of 1967 poll results in the States?) and of Naxalite disorders (thrown up by the unsettled peasantry issues).

Shivam now also reports on the fall of Saigon, where for the first time a small Asian nation defeated, in succession, two Western military powers. The romance of the US GI forces was buried, only to rear its head 40 years later in Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, with the ugly change of combat battles now replaced by missile attacks and drone assaults, launched from a safe distance.

Shivan’s journalistic forays now take him to Iran, where the Islamic Revolution throws out the West-propped-up Shah and his (un-Islamic style) corrupt family.

By 1993, Shivan moves to Bosnia in 1993, to report on Tito’s unified Yugoslavia falling to pieces, into half-a-dozen divided countries! Verily, the West won!!

Achala Moulik has written a historical novel very well, and hopefully it will spin off similarly readable novels on Indian political historiography. The only factual difference that I can raise is her imputation that Sivan (when he returns to Delhi and India by the turn of the 21st century) is appalled by the deterioration of the press. My own take is that the Indian press (exemplified by The Indian Express and EPW) has finally thrown up shining islands of investigative journalism. And yet, its a highly recommendable book....excellent prose of fictional personal stories woven around fast-moving historical events.

After 35 years in the IAS, the reviewer is now occupied fulltime in a Claims Commission reporting directly to the Supreme Court.

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