‘The Brown Sahebs’: An interesting take on India’s colonial legacy

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Book: “The Brown Sahebs”; Publisher: Vitasta Publishing; Pages: 320; Price: Rs.295The Brown Sahebs

American movies and literature are iconoclastic. Hollywood loves to make movies in which the US president gets hijacked (“Air Force One”), or the White House is under siege (“White House Down”). Indian movies and books, by and large play safe, probably afraid of fictionalizing situations which the authorities would frown upon. Thus Anupam Srivastava’s “The Brown Sahebs” surprises when its protagonist, Pratap, defaces with provocative poetry the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the majestic residence of India’s president.

For Pratap, the action is justified, as the building represents to him a colonial inheritance which even Mahatma Gandhi wanted to convert into a hospital. “The Brown Sahebs” is a story of this legacy – and the betrayal of the modest people of India who did not question their new rulers as their mission was only to send the white sahebs home.

How do you write a story of this nature – more a matter of academic research – as a work of fiction? Srivastava has done well in adopting a method which combines academic research with story-telling. The first part of the novel is set in Teekra, a kingdom near Lucknow, whose raja (king) joins the freedom movement while his dissenting son leaves the palace and, later, becomes a journalist in Delhi for ‘The Daily Bugle’, a small newspaper.

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The raja becomes a close friend of Vidya Babu, a top leader of the nationalist movement and is rewarded for his loyalty with the rank of cabinet minister in independent India’s government. He is tasked with preparing a report for “decolonizing India” and “separating the democracy from the colony”. The raja does his job well but his report is rejected by the beneficiaries of the legacy who have grown comfortable in British shoes. He hides a copy which leads to the end of friendship between him and Vidya Babu. The report is precious as its revelation to the public will embarrass the government unwilling to carry out reforms.

Pratap’s story runs parallel to the raja. As a journalist, he gets a blueprint of India’s future from no less than Gandhi, whom he interviews, and later meets him a few days before his death. Gandhi, literally abandoned by the party that is ruling India, has changed his views and is no longer so focussed on the reforms he had envisioned. He was fit only to be a portrait on the walls of free India, writes Srivastava.

The author, who earlier worked as a journalist with a leading English daily, also tells the story of journalism and its commercialization and how editors and senior journalists desire to live in Lutyens’ Delhi and be close to politicians. Also somewhat buried in the novel is a poignant love story of Pratap and Malati, the singer whose music has irresistible power. Another important woman in the novel is Kavita, a journalist with Pratap who chooses to move out of his life when he does not reciprocate her love but returns unexpectedly as a woman transformed and poised to play a key role at a critical juncture.

In The Brown Sahebs, one gets glimpses of the changing contour of Indian politics, like the latest political bandwagon – the Aam Admi Party (AAP), and its campaign against “VIP culture”. The Brown Sahebs comes across as a work of skill and quality with deft usage of words. Leading film director-producer Mahesh Bhatt tweeted: “Brown Sahebs”, a gripping novel about India’s past & present by Anupam Srivastava. Loved reading it.”

A must-read for Indians who seek a perspective on India’s present through its past.