This June marks forty years since the Emergency came into effect. The Emergency, in place from 1975 to 1977, had seminal implications, in ways still being understood today, on the polity and how we understand the many freedoms constitutionally guaranteed to us.  With its restrictions on the Press, its arrests of opponents, programmes of slum demolition and compulsory sterilisation, the Emergency provided fertile ground for fiction. Indeed, “Emergency fiction”, taking an oblique and yet penetrative look at events of the time, extends across several genres.

Fable and allegory

OV Vijayan’s unflinchingly satirical novel, The Saga of Dharmapuri, is one that the author translated into English from the original Malayalam. In a country where “social evils” of every kind are rife, its ruler, named Pippalada, and his officers are more preoccupied with the former’s bowel movement. His defecation is closely monitored, for any deviation from routine is deciphered as a catastrophe. The novel’s note of satire is but a thin veneer for the total desperation experienced by its people, and the mystic Siddartha who appears as their saviour has his task cut out for him.

Ranjit Lal’s The Crow Chronicles, written around a decade ago, is set in the Bharatpur national park, where its avian populace mirrors people of every kind. Besides a weak prime minister, there are conniving army men as well as bureaucrats adept at circumlocution. Into this mire steps in a dictator from the outside world. Khatarnak Kala Kaloota Kawah Kaw has a fascination for jewellery and ably incites his crownies to steal on his behalf.

Arun Joshi’s sadly forgotten novel, The City and The River, is his last work of fiction. Another allegorical depiction of the Emergency, it shows the Grand Master declaring an Era of Undiminished Greatness and imposing the Triple Way – a way of living that all people must follow. But the boatmen who live by the river rebel under the Headman, for they refuse to give up their worship of the river. This defiance, however, has tragic consequences.  Joshi’s novel is not merely a straightforward depiction of good versus evil, but more about the nature of authority,  the abuse of power, and is replete with symbolism.

The figure of Jayaprakash Narayan as Prophet appears in Delhi Calm, a graphic novel by Vishwajyoti Ghosh that appeared in 2010. And though a disclaimer early on warns you not to relate events to real life situations, it is set at a time when Prime Minister Moon and her sons Pilot and Prince take away the basic rights of citizens. Three friends, once part of a musical band called Naya Savera, come together: Master, VP and Parvez are also idealistic followers of the Prophet. The title is, of course, deceptive, since Delhi is anything but calm, but things follow an efficient, systematic schedule for a blitzkrieg of propaganda that silences everyone and everything else.

Saleem Sinai’s life is conjoined to the events of post-independent India. Saleem is one of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, born in 1947 and it is on the night of June  12, 1975 that his wife Parvati goes into labour.  Saleem, however, is not the real father, having been one of many coerced into the government’s compulsory sterilisation programme.

In this novel that won the Booker and then later the Booker of Bookers, Rushdie’s imagination brilliantly lent itself to history, melding smaller lives to bigger events and to mythology.  Shiva, Saleem’s rival, and enemy in several ways, is then Aadam’s true father, when he is born 13 days later, almost on another midnight as the Emergency is signed into effect.

But Aadam is named after Saleem’s grandfather and he is, thus, “the child of a father who was not his father; but also the child of a time which damaged reality so badly that nobody ever managed to put it together again.” With his big eyes and large flapping ears, Aadam sees and hears almost everything, though he stays silent – mirroring the times.

Rushdie’s other story based on the Emergency is titled Free Radio, appearing in his collection East West. It’s about a man, with big dreams of becoming an actor, who is inveigled by the promise of a radio, offered by the government’s sterilisation programme as an incentive.

Mirroring a troubled reality

In some other novels, there is little attempt to evade resemblance to real life events.  Rich like Us, Nayantara Sehgal’s novel written in the early 1980s, which also won the Sahitya Akademi award, couldn’t exactly avoid such speculation. She is, after all, Indira Gandhi’s first cousin, and also quite critical of the Emergency.

The novel features two women: Sonali, a bureaucrat, and Rose, a British woman married to the Indian businessman Ram. Rose has moved to India to make a new life with her husband, but her life takes a turn for the worse when he falls ill and then is virtually confined to bed.  It is then that her stepson begins to dupe his father, forging his signature and transferring his millions to himself.  He is also, of course, set on his dream project – a car factory; to ensure it comes up, all bureaucratic rules are bent, and those opposing him are transferred, as is Sonali. A helpless witness to Rose’s decline, Sonali also sees for herself the painful pursuit of lucre and how it subverts all morality.

The car project appears again in Manohar Malgonkar’s tightly plotted and action-packed novel, The Garland Keepers, which unfolds over a period of six days.  It begins with a terrorist from Gilgit, in Baltistan (POK), evading capture and entering a monastery in Ladakh, where he becomes an initiate after killing one of the monks.

After this, the scene moves to Delhi, where lives the Great Leader, with her son Kalas Kak wields absolute power. The “Garland Keepers” are his  three associates: Kaul and Pashupat (referred to as the Owl and Pussycat) and also Swami Rajguru, known for his flamboyant lifestyle, who always wears white to emphasise his enhanced spiritual powers.

Kalas Kak floats the idea of a car project and avails himself of bank loans and donations from hapless and ingratiating businessmen.  All opponents are of ruthlessly done away with, and it takes two policemen to follow the trail from clues left in the diary of a murdered colleague.

In A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry piles up the miseries on Om and Ishvar Darji, tailors who come to Bombay to escape caste oppressions in their native village in Bihar.  But even in the city they find little respite.  Their slum is demolished, and their patron, Dina Dalal, finds herself hard put to provide for them in any way.

When they return to their village, they fall straight into the hands of their upper caste tormentor yet again.  The horrors of the Emergency take their toll on Ishvar and Om, while the perils of development,  when a highway threatens Manek’s parents’ shop, means the end of a certain way of life for him as well. A gripping portrayal whose harshness demands the most stoic of readers.

Rahi Masoom Raza’s Katra Bi Arzoo is set in a small locality in Allahabad in the 1970s. Like Mistry’s novel, its shows the travails of the ordinary individual against the rampages of a system gone to extremes.  Desh watches his home being demolished while slogans are raised in honour of the prime minister and her dreams for the country. His other friends, who have lived for years in amity in this mohalla, see their small dreams perish at the hands of all powerful system.

In R K Narayan’s 1976 novel, Raman is the painstaking Painter of Signs. He is also devoted to his aunt, and is writing the story of her life as she narrates it.  It is when he meets Daisy, a young woman from the city with a mission to promote the government’s programme of “Family Planning” that he is thrown into conflict, for Daisy needs Raman to put up the slogans to influence people to adopt such methods. Set in Narayan’s beloved Malgudi, the novel juxtaposes tradition and modernity, presenting a young man’s contradictions and choices that aren’t really as stark as they appear.

Nirmal Verma’s Raat ka Reporter, translated as Dark Dispatches by Alok Bhalla, is about an idealistic brave young reporter’s descent into suspicion and paranoia as he sees inexplicable events unfold around him. Everything becomes a sign or an augury of events to come: changing signboards on a church, hovering kites, and a girl’s unexpected disappearance even as he watches her roll a tyre only heightens his paranoia.

Epic retellings

In The Great Indian Novel, Shashi Tharoor weds events of the Emergency to the Mahabharata. After the death of Dhritarashtra, his daughter Priya Duryodhani becomes Prime Minister and tries to wrest control of the old Kaurav party. The fate of democracy is symbolised in the figure of D. Mokrasi, and every decision seems to have an impact on its health; for instance, it declines in critical times such as when important personages such as Yudhisthir (the deputy PM) and a gentle academic (a President Zakir Hussein-like figure) resign. The story is posed as a struggle between Good (D. Mokrasi) and Evil (Priya Duryodhani).

Kiran Nagarkar’s play Bedtime Story is a subversive retelling of the Mahabharata.  It was written during the Emergency, but soon drew the ire of fundamentalists and censors alike. The screenplay remained unpublished till earlier this year. In the published edition, which also includes his Black Tulip, Nagarkar made an eloquent introduction warning against extra-legal censorship, which, unlike the more “heavy-footed legal censorship”, can be fearless and effective; the kind of censorship that finds new insidious ways of exercising threats, and so must be guarded against.