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Reality of Dreams

N. Kalyan Raman

By Pa. Visalam. Translated by Meera Rajagopalan
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 270, Rs. 495.00


‘Communists are loath to talk about them-selves. […] the memoirs of communists are so frequently without any discussion of personal feelings, and certainly not of personal ambitions.’ Vijay Prashad, writer and academic, in Frontline magazine The giants of the Indian Communist Movement of the twentieth century—E.M.S. Namboodiripad, A.K. Gopalan, B.T. Ranadive, S.A. Dange, Sundarayya and many more—have written memoirs which together constitute a rich archive of material about the movement they led with great distinction. However, Vijay Prashad’s complaint still remains valid: these books reveal too little about the leaders’ personal lives and struggles, which are the essential staple of most memoirs and autobiographies. Recent works like Mohit Sen’s A Traveller and The Road (2003) and Ashok Mitra’s A Prattler’s Tale (English translation, 2007) have been somewhat more forthcoming, but the movement still looms too large in them for either author to emerge as the classic protagonist of a novel. Besides, such memoirs are written at the end of an eventful life spent in the movement, when personal doubts and conflicts of a remote youth have faded into irrelevance.   For a description of the inner turmoil of being a Communist, we usually turn to ex-Communists, the kind that very kindly brought us—and our deathless posterity—works like The God That Failed in the 50s. In the Indian context, however, such celebrity anti-Communism has never been a sunrise industry. Those who switched to the Capitalist road did so in a matter-of-fact manner and without undue public attention. Rarely is the memoir of an Indian Communist shaped by the discipline and possibilities of the novelistic imagination.   Mella Kanavai Pazhankadhaiyay, a fictionalized memoir by the Tamil writer P. Visalam (b.1931), which was published last year in English translation (by Meera Rajagopalan) as Fading Dreams, Old Tales, is an interesting example of the genre. The novel narrates the life of a young Communist from childhood to her marriage in her early thirties, spent largely in Nanjil Nadu, a fertile region with high rainfall in the southernmost tip of Tamilnadu which was a part of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore.   Through the telling of the protagonist’s life-story, the novel explores three important strands: social conditions of Nanjil Nadu of that period as seen through the eyes of a girl-child; critique of a feudal, caste-ridden society from the perspective of a disadvantaged young woman who ...

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