Review: Mandal Diaries (APS Malhotra)

Book Review
Mandal Diaries | APS Malhotra |
Creative Crows, New Delhi: 2017 |
ISBN 93-84901-62-8 |
ISBN 13: 978-93-84901-62-8 |
Pp 156 | ₹ 599

Reviewed by: Subhash Chandra
Fictionalising historical events cuts both ways. It can be both enabling and limiting. It makes it easier for the author to immediately draw the reader into the narrative because they have not only lived through the event, but also invested emotions and perspectives in it. Verisimilitude, quintessential to any work of fiction, is achieved comparatively more easily because of the historical dimension. And the interest in the story can be sustained, of course, with some creative exertions. This has been repeatedly demonstrated with historical novels, films or mythological telly serials.
But on the flip side, it is not easy for a writer to decide where to draw the line between history and fiction. Crossing the line can either distort history, or turn imaginative fiction into a flat narration. The critics are waiting in the wings, hawk-eyed and spread-out talons to pounce on the fault lines in the representation of historical facts. The acrimonious, even violent, controversy over the film Padmavat is fresh in the public memory.
Subhash Chandra
Also, transcending subjectivity (with its attendant biases for or against) is a colossal task. A writer, like everyone else, is located in contexts –socio-cultural-political – stretching right back into childhood and is the result of diverse influences which construct his consciousness and, to a certain extent, also his unconscious.
However, a consummate novelist manages to overcome the limitations and produces a work which merits praise and becomes an important contribution to both the historical perspective on the event and also to the larger corpus of significant literature, reason being any work in the process of production generates its own dynamics which frames it. Also the writer’s creative integrity demands objectivity to the extent it is humanly possible.
APS Malhotra in his Mandal Diaries, his second novel after Dilliz Boyz which received commendatory reviews, has brilliantly done that. He needs to be congratulated for having fashioned a fine work of fiction on the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in 1989.
Mandal Commission was established in 1979 by the Janata Government Prime Minister, Morarji Desai to identify socially and economically backward classes of India, (Other Backward Classes) and take ameliorative action for their uplift. The Commission recommended 27 per cent reservations for OBCs in Central government jobs and public sector undertakings, hiking the reservations for SC, ST and OBC to 49%. The Report had been kept under wraps for a decade for its disruptive potential. But VP Singh pressured between the Left, insisting on affirmative action for the poor, and the rising BJP on the political scenario, dug out and implemented the Commission’s recommendations in 1990 to consolidate his political position by winning over a sizeable chunk of Dalit vote bank. Expectedly, it has had “disastrous or life-altering consequences.” (Foreword: 5). 
Mandal Diaries encapsulates not only the life and atmosphere in 1990 of students on the campus of Delhi University, but also the society at large. The writer trains more intensive focus on the most prestigious institution of Delhi University, St. Stephen’s college, with its class schisms – the snobbery, even arrogance of the elitist section of students towards those whose parents are not ultra-rich or highly-positioned government bureaucrats.
The story revolves around the ‘not-so-famous five,’ students of post-Graduation Physics at St. Stephen’s – Raj Khanna, Prabir Sengupta, Shekhar, Balbir Bhalla and Sandeep who actively participate in the anti-Mandal agitation. Sanghamitra, a dare-devil, dark skinned, attractive Bengali girl though a hesitant starter, also opposes reservations on caste basis, but disapproves the boycott of classes, violent protests, and destruction of public property. This makes the relationship between Raj and her fractious, to begin with.
A novel can’t be a drifting ramble. It has to have a structure to make it compact, cohesive and accessible. I find the structure of Mandal Diaries unique. Malhotra frames the tale in a diary-format by mentioning dates and years. This format, as we know, lends an authentic feel to the narrative, and also infuses in it immediacy and intimacy.
Secondly, the story moves back and forth in time slots of the past and the present, with a gap of twenty years. Most interestingly the present in 2010/11, resonates the past in 1990, in terms of the nature of major events. The OBC Gurjars demand SC/ST status and the SC/ST Meenas fiercely resist the slicing off of their cake of reservations; and it causes disruption and chaos in the lived life. Trains have been cancelled, roads are clogged, and insecurity stalks the air – a throwback to the 1990s when the anti-Mandal Commission agitations rocked the country.  
The beginnings and the endings in fiction are a fraught task for a novelist. The beginning has to be striking to lasso the reader straightaway. Mandal Diaries does that by leaving Ajay, the protagonist, stranded at the Jaipur Railway Station in the wake of abrupt cancellation of the Ajmer-Delhi Shatabdi (among other trains) by which he was to travel. This whets the reader’s curiosity about the reasons for train cancellations, Raj’s restless urgency to reach Delhi and also about whether and how he would manage to travel – impetus enough for the reader to keep turning the pages of the book!
I will talk about the ending of Mandal Diaries later.
Reservations on the basis of caste were expectedly considered discriminatory by a vast multitude of students in colleges and universities. They were jittery and angry at the prospect of their jobs being snatched away and given to the less deserving, with low or no merit. Consequently, students’ protests erupted and the government came down heavily on them. Two self-immolations were attempted in the wake of the agitation.
Indian history was cleaved; the Indian society was vertically riven. The genie of the divisive politics has not been bottled since; political parties have been competitively appeasing this sizeable bloc to garner votes. Mandal Diaries, therefore, remains contemporaneous, even today!
The narrative unfolds in flashback when Raj hires a taxi to reach Delhi and co-incidentally gets a co-passenger who, serendipitously turns out to be Prabir, one of the quintet who were active in the anti-Mandal agitation in and outside St. Stephen’s college. Thenceforward, the two narratives, the present (2010/11) and the past (1990) move parallel, and at times flawlessly flow into each other
I would like to give an example of how the two narratives, temporally separated as they are by two decades, cascade into each other.
In the taxi, Raj and Prabir begin to reminisce about the old times. Notably the present conversation is taking place on 24th December 2010, and they are talking about the events in 1990 when anti-Mandal protests were peaking in Delhi (and elsewhere).
Prabir queries, “Any news of our Jhansi Ki Rani, Sanghamitra?”
“How am I to know?” Raj responded. “I thought you are the one who keeps track of erstwhile colleagues.”
“I do. But wasn’t Sanghamitra different?  ….”
“ … I lost touch with her at the same time as I drifted away from the boys.”
“She was indeed a dare devil – the only girl to remain with us throughout the turbulent times of the Mandal protests”
“… I still remember the first inter-action we had with her …
… It was 10th August 1990.”
‘… Raj boarded the 07.40 A.M. U – Special and took a seat beside Balbir.
‘He felt a strong blast of unrest, as agitated students dissected incidents that had taken place at India Gate with intense anger and gravitas.’ (51-52).
I have read few novels in which the interflow of one time slot into another is so seamless and unobtrusive. Kudos to APS Malhotra for achieving this novelistic feat!
Mandal Diaries is about a volatile historical event, but if there are college-mates and class-mates from both genders, the absence of romance, love and the assertions of testosterone (sexual escapades) would be a travesty of a fundamental human emotion and drive. Sanghamitra and Raj who were class mates doing post-graduation in Physics, shared a subterranean attraction for each other, but their differences on the approach to the agitation turned their interactions abrasive; and only acerbic barbs were exchanged. However, Cupid succeeds eventually and how! Love between the two blossoms. All negativity evaporates. The breeze passing their bodies gets charged with love and becomes aromatic. What a beautiful experience Love is!
Astute writer that Malhotra is, he brings about an accidental meeting post-dusk between the two. Raj’s genuine concern for Sanghamitra during the brutal violence unleashed on the anti-Mandal protesters, collected at the Police HQ, dissipates the frost, and his escorting her to the hostel generates loving warmth.
From then on fast forward, the relationship gallops. They meet periodically and before long they are meeting in secluded spots to consummate their love. In one such meeting, breaths get warm, the bodies get taut and expectant, and voices grow gruff. It is as it should be between two young, loving, vibrant bodies. Fusion of the bodies, minds and souls!
The novel has many more allurements for readers: the characters are complex and individuated, the language is rich. Most importantly, it has CONFLICT – an essential for making a novel riveting – at its centre: between friends and friends, parents and children, between lovers, between the students and the government.
Anti-Mandal agitations peter out in the face of strong arm measures adopted by the VP Singh government. But what happens to the blooming, fragrant love between Raj and Sanghamitra, I would leave for the readers to find out for themselves. All I would say is the ending, too, is handled by the novelist equally skilfully.
The cover is thoughtfully designed. The title on the cover is shot through by an arrow, signifying that a love story is embedded in the novel. The colour is suitably black and the raised hands and fists indicate the protests.
I have no hesitation in recommending the novel for a read.        

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