Political drama

Political drama

The Honest Season
Kota Neelima
Random House 
2016, pp 364, Rs 299

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever,” the agent provocateur O’Brien tells Winston Smith in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949 and envisioning a bleak world where the protagonist rebels against his job of manipulating recorded history through rewriting old newspaper articles until he is physically and psychologically tortured and conditioned into finally and fully accepting the established order of everything being controlled in a totalitarian state.

But what if the state has to maintain appearances of being a democracy and, that too, the most populous one called India where it is not so much religion but the ubiquitous 24x7 TV channel which is the opium of the masses who elect governments once every five years? In a country where those in power and those seeking to replace them are simultaneously striving to get their message of corruption in high places across to the masses through the news channels, it becomes increasingly difficult for newspapers to remain relevant and financially viable.

In The Honest Season, novelist Kota Neelima peeps into the not-so-distant future and envisions a world where Delhi newspaper-owner and editor-in-chief Bidur Munshi overcomes the disadvantage “that 800 words of the most thought-provoking newspaper story were equal to roughly a 30-second ‘wrap’ on television” by employing “know-journalists” who discern the thoughts of those in power by just listening to them talk.

Munshi employs two “know-reporters”, the first being Mira Mouli, an orphan who has the power to cue in to the thoughts of others because she has none of the emotional baggage which comes with being part of a family. The absence of roots leaves her mind free to not just intuitively discern the thoughts of others, but to wonder whether death is the only escape from a bleak world without attachments of any kind.

Mira regularly comes up with exclusives like when she predicts with cent percent accuracy not just the newcomers to be inducted in the next cabinet expansion, but also the incumbents to be promoted and demoted. These exclusives boost the circulation of Munshi’s newspaper and give a much-needed fillip to the advertising revenue.

And then Sikander, the youth leader and son of the president of the ruling People’s Party (PP), goes missing. He leaves behind with his father Mahesh Bansi an audio tape where Kim Sharma, a business-woman close to PP leaders and employed by a Mumbai-based liaison firm, reveals that a deal had been struck to allocate ministerial portfolios to individuals close to her clients. (Shades of the Radia tapes!) He also leaves behind a letter, indicating that more incriminatory tapes will be released over the next few weeks and that he will stop the process if Mira is able to find out where he is hiding. Each tape is accompanied with a clue for Mira. The first clue says, “Choose the knife carefully... Or, just take a step forward. Before a train, before a truck, from an edge, from a height. Come die with me.”

In the next tape, a police official reveals that 30 families were torched to death in a fire which was deliberately set when police protection was withdrawn at the insistence of an opposition leader. A third tape reveals that a leader in Delhi was aware that a farmer could kill himself at his party’s rally. A fourth tape indicates that a southern state was bifurcated to promote the interests of business houses.

What begins as a game of chess between Mira and Sikander inevitably gets complicated. The romantic in her is drawn to the persona of the young ‘rebel’ Sikander who is trying to clean up the system from outside even while she is attracted to the senior PP leader Nalan Malik who tells her that the country can progress only if there is faith in the institutions.

When the PP wins the next election with both Malik and Sikander campaigning for the party, the “know-journalist” in her is not surprised at the realisation that the whole exercise of the tapes has evolved into a gambit to retain power. Or, as O’Brien tells Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. Power is not a means, it is an end. The object of power is power.”

The Honest Season could have been more carefully edited. The first paragraph on page 27 ends with “She began to get angry with Bhaskar for assigning her such non-stories.” Bhaskar is mentioned for the first time. The page ends with Mira asking someone, “What do have against Sikander?”

Kota Neelima’s foray into highly original and thought-provoking political fiction deserves more meticulous editing, especially at a time when the reading habit is declining due to TV channels. Bidur Munshi would have pulled up the copy-editor.

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