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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

05 June, 2007

Review of "An Iron Harvest" by CP Surendran

Poet and columnist CP Surendran's debut novel "An Iron Harvest" is a living chronicle of how an industrially backward state took a leap into radical ideology of the industrial era (communism) to find itself slowly enmeshed in a seemingly unending class struggle.

Communism has been a by-product of the industrial age of systematic production, streamlined marketing and shrewed people management and its failure is in most parts because of the eclipsing of the industrial age by the information age. The information age is another deal. Here people work as if no clocks exists. But still, communism continues to thrive and prosper in an industrially backward state, Kerala, and has fanatical adherents there who believe that revolution is possible and that workers of the world can rule countries. CP Surendran's novel depicts such a group of people who is bent on carrying on with the idea of revolution.

Kerala is the first state in the world to elect a communist government by a democratic voting process in 1959. Almost half a century later, it is today (in 2007) ruled by a communist government though all over the world communist governments have failed. Communist Russia and China have embraced market realities and its communal ideologies have been washed away by capitalism. But Kerala still adheres to Marx and his teachings of dialectic materialism. The exploited labour force still believe that only a communist revolution can redeem  their plight, and have a stranglehold over industrial enterprises across the state.

It is in such a revolution that John, ersatz Che Guevera, protagonist of Surendran's novel fights for his ideology, and believes he can achieve with this associates. He along with his band of men are killing evil landlords, attacking police stations, terrorizing the ruling class to bring about a revolution (remember Crasto and Che Guevara took over Cuba with just eighty men, they had the backing of the people).

They call themselves "Red Earth" and this breakaway group of leftists is led by Varkeychayan, who is an erstwhile communist leader. John's comrades are a motley group who use sickles, matchets, and crude country-made rifles to achieve revolution. But in what sense? Could a revolution in one state of India transform into a mass movement to take over a country such as India which has world's second largest army to protect it? They achieve in some measure to spread terror among the landed classes and the ruling elite.

Ironically the epoch is the emergency days of Indira Gandhi and Kerala's home minister Marar has deputed commissioner Raman to hunt down the radical revolutionaries. Raman is a bachelor given to lascivious thoughts, masturbates copiously, presumably because sex is unavailable in conservative Kerala. But he is shown by the author as ruthless and powerful, despite his puny appearance.

Abey, an innocent student in John's college is picked up by the police for questioning.  He dies in the police lock up at Raman's behest as a result of the police's highhanded interrogation methods. His father Sebanstian makes it life's mission to get justice for his dead son. He is helped in this mission by Nambiar, the Inspector General of police - a theatre aficionado, therefore an artist - who is at loggerheads with the ambitious Raman.

Surendran is at ease with his narration of the beautiful Kerala conuntryside, and its customs. What this author liked best about the book is that to a great extend Surendran has succeeded in capturing the Malayalis' aspirations, behavior and "mentality" with his words. All through the book a Malayali's innate cynicism, humour and wit is amply depicted.

The author's prose has poetic inclination right from the start. Examples: "The sky paled in slivers over the paddy fields and rivers and, in between them, the railway tracks bared themselves in the first light like bones of distance. A necklace of white birds flew past in the East." Who but a poet can write such elevating prose?

Raman's life and actions provide comic relief throughout the novel. His deviationist look at women and sex is told hilariously, especially his encounter with his subordinate Vijayan's wife. "Mrs. Vijayan spoke very fast, as if she had only one breath to speak and a great deal to tell," a very apt description of some fast-talking Malayalis I have seen and met. Raman is ruthlessly caricatured throughtout the novel. His discription of the excesses of the emergency as seen through Sebastian's eyes brings home the terror of those dark days.

I would have loved it if John's relationship with his love Janaki was explored a little more in detail and intimacy. All in all, a well-crafted, intricately woven novel that looks not only at the radicalisation of  God's chosen state, but also provides a window through which to view Kerala and its people.

Surendran's novel is dark but with a purpose. He takes the reader on a new high with sharp observations and pointed irony. He tells the tale of a people caught in a time warp trying to exorcise the ghost of an ideology that has failed, and like obsessive love, compounds it by going even further in an unproductive attempt to revive the lost magic.