An Iron Harvest

By CP Surendran

The ‘Rajan case’ as it came to be known, rocked Kerala in the ‘70s. It was the emergency, Rajan was a student of REC Calicut, a hot bed of Naxalite sympathizers and one day he was taken into police custody and never seen again. It is supposed that he was tortured in police custody and killed. His father Eechara Varrier waged a courageous battle against the authorities, pressing for information about his son and filing a case against the government when the emergency was finally lifted. The case led to the resignation of the chief minister Karunakaran (who was the home minister at the time of the incident) but the police officers who were in charge of the police camp where Rajan was taken were prosecuted but later acquitted.

This incident forms the kernel of Surendran’s novel. He describes a time in Kerala where Naxalites had fired the popular imagination, with students rallying behind an ideology that promised revolution and a changing of the old guard. It is an unrecognizable Kerala today. When Surendran describes feudal landlords exploiting tribal labour mercilessly, it seems like he is talking about today’s Bihar. Just goes to show how much Kerala has changed since the ‘70s. It is also the time of the emergency – a strange and troubling time. Trains run on time but midnight knocks are common as are forced sterilization drives.

The story is of John, an engineering college student, the leader of Red Earth, a Naxalite group that beheads cruel landlords and raids police stations. John is as close to a Che Guevara as one can get – the beard, the intellectualism, the on-the-run life he chooses. John’s friend Abe is the Rajan who disappears. It drives John further into the arms of the revolution that he is intelligent enough to recognize is not going to come to pass. John and his fellow-revolutionaries go deeper into the beautiful forests of Wynad where it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize friend from foe. A parallel story of Abe’s father, Sebastian, runs through the novel as he attempts to get justice for his son’s disappearance. Sebastian is the character you sympathise most with – his is an intense personal grief that hard to ignore by even the most hardened police officials. The DIG Raman, the man responsible for Abe’s death is portrayed as a sadist, taking pleasure in the torture he inflicts on his helpless prisoners.

Surendran’s tale is fast-paced and engrossing. As the police web tightens around John and his fellow-revolutionaries, there are events set in motion that work towards helping Sebastian. The darkness of the emergency is lifted and Sebastian can hope for the courts to grant him recourse. But it is already too late for John. His hopes for the revolution are fading along with his life.

It is a first novel and Surendran has chosen a subject that is obvious he is intimate with. He writes of the lure of leftist ideology in the time of fascism. It is an alluring concept, more so because of the juxtaposition. An interesting read of a time that no one should ever forget – when we came so close to losing so much of what we take for granted today.

Surendran’s language evokes a lush green and wet Kerala. He does not use language to mesmerize like Arundhati Roy, but in his quiet way he paints beauty beautifully. Yet he uses English quite self-consciously, translating a lot of the Malayalam that Roy uses without compunction in her English. That is a bit unnecessary and takes away from naturalness.

I’ve always enjoyed CP Surendran’s columns. And An Iron Harvest is definitely one of the better Indian novels in English I have read in a long while.


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SR said…
I had planned to give this book a miss based on another review (enclosed)
Arguably, the the subject of naxalism is far more closer to his heart, and maybe thus the disapproving views of Surendran trivializing the Naxalite Movement. I will surely now read this.
BTW, I am sure you have checked out the Mallu movie "Piravi" by Shaji N Karun - the award winning 1989 movie portraying the father's agonizing search for his missing son.

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