by Associate Professor Kalpana Ram, anthropologist and Director of the India Research Centre at Macquarie University. Her most recent book, Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and its Provocation of Modernity, explores subordinated practices among poor women in Tamil Nadu, India.
Ian Bedford's book title The Last Candles of the Night quotes from the first line of a couplet written in the language Urdu – which, when I was a child, I assumed was the language of Muslims everywhere, but it is in fact a uniquely Indian synthesis of Persian, Arabic, the colloquial Hindustani of the time, as well as some south Indian languages. The couplet goes:
Hamen khabr hai ki ham hain chirage e aakir e shab
Bedford translates this as :
We have heard that we are the last candles of the night…
The genre of poetry in which the couplet is composed, the Urdu ghazal, as well as the imagery of candles, is itself redolent for Indians and for Pakistanis today, of the subtleties and nuances of cultivated taste, harking back particularly to an undivided India when Muslim culture was still the courtly elite culture in the many princely states that persisted right through the period of British colonialism.
Candles were lit and passed from one to another at mushairas where such poetry was recited, and each poet recited his poetry when the candle was passed to him.
But the couplet specifically refers to the last candles of the night and it does so in precisely the slightly ironic vein that was made popular by 19th-century Urdu poets such as Mir and Ghalib, where the self becomes an object of reflection even, and especially, in its direst vicissitudes – Hamen khabr hai ki ham hain chirage e aakir e shab : "we have heard that we are the last candles of the night" – the news of one's own imminent demise is received from a third source, but is also watched by a part of oneself, which comments with ironic wryness on its own ruin, heartbreak and tragedy.
What better way to enter the world of the novel – a world in which the last princely Muslim state in India is holding on by a thread to its autonomy – not against the British, who have already left India in 1947, driven out by a mobilisation that actually forged a nation for the time in the subcontinent's history, led by the Congress Party. The princely state of Hyderabad, headed by the Nizam, is holding out against the new nation itself, against the Congress-led government that has come to power in Delhi. It is the largest of the princely states that lasted the period of colonial rule, and it is located in the Deccan plateau of the sub-continent’s peninsula.
Like other princely states, the Nizam's Hyderabad only survived direct rule by the British by being stripped of real autonomy and having British Residencies pointedly stationed to make sure that things were managed favourably from the imperial point of view. But unlike other princely states, which were more already more reform-oriented and did deals with the new Indian nation state in 1947, the Nizam's state held out for a year, until finally the troops were sent in from Delhi by the Congress government in 1948 in an action that is still called the Police Action even though it was the army that was sent.
The "last candles" might then well be said to be the last Muslim elites to rule over India – although all the old cities of the Muslim states such as Lucknow still exude the architectural and artisanal culture of perfumes, glasswear, the scented aromas of rice biryanis – all of which are so well evoked in the novel.
But there were other candles burning bright, some of whom kept on burning well after the rulers handed over power. These were the communist-led insurrections that took deep hold in the poverty-stricken districts such as Telengana, where the peasantry was Hindu (so were many of the large landlords), the land was poor, and the debts owed to landlords and money lenders were taken out as forced labour.
By 1949 vast tracts of Telengana, some three million people in three thousand villages, were not only under Communist control, but whole areas of villages had had land re-distributed, villages turned into soviets, money lenders driven out, and landlords who were considered particularly oppressive held on trial and shot.
Women – such as one of the central characters in this novel, Ragini – were involved in this insurrection. Rural women, many from land-poor communities, were trained in arms, recruited by the Communist party; some worked as barefoot doctors, others as couriers.
They fought not only against the landlords but against a paramilitary organisation called the Razakars who stood for the continuity of Muslim rule in Hyderabad state. The Razakars kept an eye on the Nizam to make sure he did not make deals with the Central government, but they also made raids on villages.
In this mix of political forces, the one political party that did not have much of a base, ironically, was the Congress Party that saw itself as the leader of a new nation. It is this gap, between the view of India as a nation from the Centre, in Delhi, and the view from the south where India is a dim reality, which Bedford exploits in this novel to great effect.
Eventually, after the takeover by the Indian central government, one faction of the Communist Party called off the insurrection. But another faction dug in and took refuge in the thickly forested tracts along the river Godavari, where the fight was carried on, not so much by peasants who worked the land, but by forest-dwelling so-called "tribals", as they are still known in India.
This strand of fighting did not dry up. In the 1970s when I went back from Australia as a 23-year-old Marxist to find radical social movements I could align myself with, I found that the women's movement in Hyderabad was fuelled by a tradition of Communist women who sang not only party songs but, far more to my taste, the lilting rural songs that they had learned not only from their activist parents, but from their own continued involvement in rural social movements. Many of these young women had to my eyes the mystique of veterans in an armed struggle with a local tradition all its own.
In 1989, these activists brought out a book called We were making history, in which they sought out the women who survived the struggles of the 1940s. I want to structure my next remarks around a contrast between the views of the past taken in Bedford’s book and in We were making history. Both are concerned with memory. The activists also found that for the old women who narrate their experiences, "often there is little chronological order to the narration, few ideological formulations. Forty years after, some talked of incidents as if they had happened yesterday, with graphic and minute details, for others the accounts are only what has percolated through the years".
Bedford's book explores the riddling qualities of memory, and the next two speakers will take up memory as one of the central themes of Ian’s book. But there is an important difference that comes up here.
For contemporary activists, their anchoring in Communist traditions makes the past accessible through a modern narrative any Marxist will be familiar with – the Nizam’s state was a particularly corrupt and decadent example of autocratic feudalism. Peasants were slaves, women suffered the peculiar double burden of sexual slavery and that is all there is to be said about that past.
Bedford's book does not deny such a reading of the past. Nor does he minimise the burning sense of loss that many who participated in this movement felt as they saw the struggle closing down, officially disbanded, or who, for reasons of their own, felt unable to go on fighting. Indeed, one of the most moving parts of the book for me was the description of the despair of those who see their hopes for a radical vision of social justice collapse. The young woman Ragini comes out of the forest where she has been fighting for eight months weighted down by "blackness of heart, the sheer want of energy and light, of a glimmer of the sense of life’s meaning, gutted and empty" (p181). And Bedford traces similar heartbreaks in Australia for those who saw the glimmerings of meaning in moves towards social justice before the Howard era.
But Bedford's novel also offers us another perspective on the past which is not open to the socialist or, indeed, to anyone who is entirely committed to modernity as progress, pure and simple. And that is the perspective of holding back one's ready presumption of knowing what the past stood for, what its meanings were, of checking the assumption that we know better than those who went before us – or even that the clarity we hold today about the meanings of the past was somehow shared by those who were living in those times.
In this passage, Philip the protagonist finds, as he scours his memories of the last days of the Nizam, a memory of a political demonstration. But the political nature of the event is obscure to him as he remembers: "Fifty three years had passed… History had pronounced its verdict on the Nizam. Wasted effort. An unjust social order. That order had vanished, like water vapour, and nobody in India regretted it for one moment." (p39). The novelist does not ask us to regret the passing of this regime. But he does unsettle the certainty of history's verdict on the past.
And if we return now to the spirit of bemused irony and detachment cultivated by the Urdu poet Zaheer Kashmiri whose line is the epigraph of the novel, we can now appreciate it in a new light: for it breathes to us, across the passage of time, a sense of the acute reflexivity of those who saw their own era slip away: Hamen khabr hai ki ham hain chirage e aakir e shab.