Award-winning Malayalam author TD Ramakrishnan didn’t write his first novel until he was 42. In 1992, while working as a guard in the railways, he found his thoughts running wild sometimes. There was a lot of time on his hands too. From Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China to the fall of Soviet Union, Ramakrishnan read everything possible to understand the philosophical dimensions of human behaviour. His keen interest in economic reforms took seed in the form of the fictional narrative that is Alpha, in which thirteen scholars embark upon a human experiment to leave their life in India behind to live on an anonymous island as primitive human beings for 25 years. Alpha has been translated into English by Priya K Nair. Ramakrishnan spoke to Scroll.in about his novel, his political philosophy, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
Where did your inspiration for Alpha come from?
In the ’70s, when I was a college student, the Soviet Union was a land of promise – a land where all problems had a solution. I too was captured by that dream. But towards the beginning of the ’90s, the Soviet Union collapsed, which came as a huge shock for people like me who believed that socialism was a practical project.
Yet, even when the Soviet Union collapsed, the People’s Republic of China gained strength. I was eager to know why this was so. I was a railway employee at the time, working as a guard in the goods train, and unlike today, access to information was quite limited. My duty was in the last wagon and therefore, I used to be all alone. It was then when I thought intensely, even wildly. It was during this time that I first thought about Alpha.
I tried to read more on Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China from 1978 to 1987. I wanted to know how China managed to survive. The study of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China also helped me. I feel that humans are basically selfish, greedy and violent. What we call humanity and human goodness are based on acts done out of sheer societal pressure. That is the thought that Alpha is based on.
Literature is a good platform for such intellectual discussions, where fantasy plays a huge part. My study of economic reforms in China would not be complete without data. For a person like me, a railway guard it was nearly impossible. So, I took refuge in literature and my fantasies were used to create Alpha.
What research did you do to build the characters of each of the scholars in the novel?
All the characters in the book are fictional, but several real-life people share some similarities with them. For example, Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, a revolutionary who established the People’s War Group, inspired the character of Professor Chatterjee. Just like Seetharamaiah was thrown out of this party and eventually had no control over it, the professor too loses his significance as the group leader once they enter the island. Most of the characters are the embodiment of my ideas. I didn’t do any research to develop characters, they just happened. That is the peculiarity of writing fiction. Characters enter your mind like a revelation. Their joys and sorrows become yours.
The novel moves between multiple themes – intellectualism, human existence, communism, politics, etc. Talk to us about this.
Alpha discusses the human species from a philosophical perspective. I was looking into the possibility of debates with varied perspectives – projecting not a single truth, but multiple perspectives. I was not trying to project my idea of what is right. I wanted to share my angst about humans with my readers.
Whether it was religion or ideology, efforts were made for the good of humankind. Be it Jesus, the Prophet or Marx – they all wanted good to prevail. But human beings moved to violence and greed. Why? Alpha is an effort to find this.
As we speak, Russia has turned against Ukraine. A century ago, both these countries were part of a model of unity. It was a space for the practical experimentation of an ideology. But now they are fighting amongst themselves. They have their own justifications. Putin has his own reasons, as does Zelenskyy. But we must not forget the capitalist manipulations that lead to the erosion of the Soviet Union and the forces that are still able to create trouble in these countries.
Was it a deliberate choice to set your novel between 1973 and 1998, and showcase the autocratic rule of the Prime Minister of the time, as opposed to the liberal thinking of the characters in the book?
It was a conscious decision indeed, because of the Soviet Union’s connection with Alpha. In 1971 the Bangladesh war was fought. The changes that came over the victorious Prime Minister after the war and its aftermath are important. The Soviet Union helped in the war. It was felt that India was moving towards the Soviet Union and away from the Non-Alignment policy.
Then came the declaration of Emergency in India – a period in Indian history that was similar to the communist regime in Soviet Union. The dreams of freedom were completely ruined. The people in power controlled everything. Attempts were made to rewrite history, resistance was wiped out. Free thinkers found it impossible to live in such circumstances.
In the novel, Professor Upelendu Chatterjee is an intellectual. He is an anthropologist who refuses many opportunities to succeed materialistically in order to embark on this experiment. He could have joined forces with the power structure and benefitted in many ways. This whole period, between 1973 and 1998, is crucial to the novel as the history of the world was changing, and so was India. Corruption, nepotism, greed, violence, all in the name of religion and caste, grew. In 25 years, India had undergone a situation like the one described in Alpha.
Did Indira Gandhi’s politics personally affect you, and why?
I was doing my pre-degree course when the Emergency was declared. Even if it didn’t affect me personally, Indira’s rule affected me the way it did every one. Freedom was curtailed like it was in the Soviet Union. In college, the walls were filled with graffiti:
India is Indira and Indira is India.
Hold your tongue and work.
It was a fearful atmosphere. Fear ruled the country, people were afraid to talk.
What do you think are the similarities between then and now?
Indira’s rule and Modi’s rule are quite different. Though there is a superficial similarity, there are inherent differences. However, for both, democracy is a façade for authoritarianism. The difference is that Mrs Gandhi represented a political party that projected an ideology that was a continuation of the freedom movement. Her party was not an advocate of violence. However, now the situation is quite different. The ideology of hatred and exclusion is put forward in a concerted manner with all the force that a well-disciplined, cadre-based party can command. Society at large is being led towards the fascist idea. Mrs Gandhi also had fascist tendencies, but it was confined to a small circle.
Fascism is never static, it always reinvents itself, overcoming the obstacles in its way. Fascism can’t be defined in a single way – nor can it be defined by the notions of the past. Neo-fascism wears the mask of development, democracy and peace. In Mrs Gandhi’s time, only a few people very influenced by authoritarianism, but now many people believe in the fascist ideology in varying levels. This is a dangerous situation.
There is a point in the book where people in power attempt to rewrite history, a phenomenon that has manifested in present-day India as well. Your comments?
During authoritarian rule, it is usual to find ways to validate the rule. History is a means to do this effectively. Many gaps and silences in history can be manipulated in umpteen ways. The fascists use this shrewdly. In India, there are huge efforts to show off the glories of the past. Textbooks are rewritten with pronounced slants, places are renamed. But this is not peculiar to India; it happens the world over. Even excavations are manipulated. In Sri Lanka during the rule of Rajapaksa, excavations were manipulated. in Port Blair cellular jail, there are stories that claim the name of the island – Andaman – is derived from Hanuman, who supposedly halted there as he jumped from India to Sri Lanka. Indian tourists are thrilled upon hearing this. Such stories are intelligently manipulated. Within 20-30 years, Indian history will be completely rewritten.
The novel plays heavily on concepts of evolution and acquisition of knowledge. It seems to say that both are largely dependent on the existence of a rule-bound society and structure, and without it, cerebral development is insufficient.
Alpha problematises the concept of family, conventions, morals and culture that have evolved. These are complex notions as there is no universal value system that transcends time and space. Each society is conditioned according to the moral code followed in that culture. How does the cerebral development of human beings relate to this code of ethics? How is the knowledge attained by human beings transferred to the next generation? If knowledge is not communicated what will human beings do? How does this affect the development of human beings? Are the ideas we have about freedom correct?
It is said that your freedom ends where my nose begins. There are many ideas regarding freedom. Especially in the Soviet Union and in China, creative freedom is controlled by the power structure. Free thinkers are controlled by the rulers, quite cruelly at times.
Alpha discusses the notion of power that conditions human minds. It is a novel that provides a space for debate rather than being an attempt to project a single truth.