23 March, 1931: Dreams Die Young

On 23rd March, 1931, the British colonial government in India, executed three young men in the dark of the night. Their crime? They were fighting for that which is everybody’s birth-right: Freedom.

So many years down the line it is easy to condemn the British for snuffing out three of India’s brightest lights: Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru.

 But what about us Indians? Have we really kept a tryst with the ideals that these men died for?

These are the questions that Mridula Garg asks in her novel Anitya. It is one of those books that grab you by the throat and do not let go. They force you to ask questions, however uncomfortable they might be and then compell you to search for answers however unsettling those might be.

Through the story of a group of friends: Avijit, Chadha, Kajal Mukherjee, Saran – all of whom were involved in India’s struggle for freedom, Garg examines why our freedom acquired this particular shape. Saran turns into a political leader who wears khadi but takes commission; Chadha continues to stick to the ideals and dies a destitute; Kajal becomes a professor of history but since she focusses on marginalised figures and not mainstream heroes, she finds herself continually being forced out of her job; Avijit compromises with his youthful idealism, marries into comfort and luxury but now finds himself saddled with a hypochondriac wife and a crippling sense of failure and self-disgust.

Where then did we go wrong? Was non-violence really that perfect panacea? Did our reverence for the Mahatma take away our spirit of questioning? In one particular scene, Kajal reads out the last message of Bhagat Singh, written just prior to his death and smuggled out of the jail. Singh extols his fellow comrades to enter into the spirit of questioning. Why he wonders, do our leaders, with the possible exception of Pt. Motilal Nehru, not dare to take any responsibility on their shoulders… and… surrender unconditionally before Gandhi. In spite of their differences, they never oppose him seriously and the resolutions have to be carried for the Mahatma? This unquestioning fidelity is opposed to the very notion of a revolution. Freedom, if it has to come should be such that changes the very nature of this exploitative system and not merely usher in a change of rulers. What difference does it make for a peasant – as Singh so famously asks – if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin?

Garg’s novel shows that yes, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru has replaced Lord Irwin, we Indians govern our own country, have all  the paraphernalia of a free nation: national flag, national emblem, national anthem, a constitution of our own….and yet things have remained the same: corruption, exploitation, poverty, hunger, want…

An eminently readable book, Garg’s novel is important because it focusses on the revolutionary ideology in our nationalist discourse. For those who cannot read Hindi, there is good news. The novel has been translated into English: Anitya: Halfway to Nowhere.

Read it even if it is to disagree.

First Line: Das Kadam aage…das kadam peeche…phir aage….peechhe….aage….baar-baar peechhe.

Title: Anitya

Author: Mridula Garg

Publication Details: ND: National Publishing House, 1982

First Published: 1980

Pages: 268

Other books read of the same author: None

6 thoughts on “23 March, 1931: Dreams Die Young

  1. Neer – This sounds like an absolutely fascinating novel! It seems to raise one of the fundamental questions that any nation has to ask: how free are people to peacefully disagree and be heard. What is a national dialogue really like. I think all nations need to face that issue.


  2. It is a fascinating book, Margot. It is one of those books that you cannot simply put aside and forget. You are absolutely right, there has to be a national dialogue and a right to be heard however 'against the grain' your thoughts might be.


  3. Yes Sergio, I am so glad that these questions have been asked. The book has become one of my favourite reads ever esp. because the revolutionary discourse of India's freedom struggle is usually sidelined. The translation is published by OUP and can be purchased on the Net.


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