Think Freely, but Obey: Indu Vashist

Guest post by INDU VASHIST

In recent years, we have seen a number of filmic representations of Delhi, (Love Aaj Kal, Delhi 6, Band Baaja Baraat, to name a few.) Amit Trivedi has even given Dilli a new anthem. All of these artist representations have been trying to capture or at least showcase the contemporary social, political and economic layers of India’s Powerpolis. Implicit within these depictions is that Delhi is actually Dilli, a place mired in contradictions and tensions, but still dil wali, a city with heart.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s graphic novel Delhi Calm (Harper Collins Press, 2010) recounts the 21-month period from 25 June 1975 – 21 March 1977 that is known in this country as the Emergency. This book shows another side of the city, one that does not talk about or acknowledge the atrocities committed in the name of the nation. In fact, Ghosh’s Delhi functions on the principle that silence or “self-censorship” is the key to survival in this city and by extension the mythical nation.

“Nothing like this ever happened. If it did, it doesn’t matter any more, for it was of no interest or relevance even while it was happening. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction. Self-censored.”

The novel begins with this message. It is Ghosh’s testament to the psychological hangover of the Emergency onto the nation. Whether or not, this is a work of fiction becomes abundantly clear. Ghosh’s opinion is unambiguous: the nation as a whole has not acknowledged, processed or accepted the occurrences of these months.

Steeped in sombre sepia tones, the drawings match the era: paranoid and stiflingly heavy. Ghosh invokes the aesthetics of the India Film Division newsreels ( as well the Emergency government’s propaganda materials. The result is that this graphic novel infuses theatrical drawings (the use of masks and puppets is superb!), with fictionalised archival newspaper clippings against the backdrop of the city that is held together by jumbles of telephone and illegal electrical wires. Each page is dripping in rich detail to contextualise the era.

The story is told through the eyes of the Naya Savera Band, a group of left-leaning misfits and the political battle between Mother Moon (Indira Gandhi) and The Prophet (Jayaprakash Narayan).  The Naya Savera Band represents grassroots activists who are not only concerned with social change but also paying the bills, smoking hash, eating biryani and drinking rum. These characters begin their days with a heady cocktail of Rafi on All India Radio and Marx in their laps. They don’t live in the gentrifying south Delhi, they reside in the Pahargunj alleys with illegal jumbles of telephone, television and electrical cables. Their Delhi veers away from Connaught Place towards Mall Road.

The Naya Savera Band are the ones who have to live under the Emergency policies and find ways to resist them. It is within the story of the Naya Savera Band that the details of how the Emergency affected the mundane everyday lives of people become evident. People’s everyday movements were restricted and watched by not only the state, but also people with whom they had the most routine relationships, be it chai-wallahs or co-workers. The band spends their time worrying about eviction due to police enquiries, whether or not they will get their next paycheque, dodging the sterilisation campaign, and taking the message of revolution to the villages, garnering support for The Prophet while passing out leaflets against emergency measures. The feeling that no one could be trusted and silence was the only way to be able to slip under the radar of the police state builds as the novel progresses. The psychological terror that activists faced during this time becomes palpable when the Naya Savera Bands starts suspecting each other of collaborating with state.

The story of Mother Moon and the Prophet is told in grand theatrical manner. The Smiling Saviours (the Youth Congress) clad in sinister smiling masks, do Moon’s bidding. They are a nameless, faceless army of drones who implement and enforce Emergency policies.

Mother Moon is the prodigal daughter of The Barrister and is charged with taking this young nation ‘forward.’ She is left in charge of the dynasty and bears the burden of raising two sons, the Pilot and the Prince, who will carry the mission further. In actuality, Mother Moon has two roles in this book, the first being the person (a daughter, a mother) and the second being the icon of the Emergency (India is Moon, Moon is India). These two characters easily slide into each other to give a well rounded portrait of Indira Gandhi. She is shown to be a stern but loving mother figure, who under the pretext of nation building, suspends the fundamental rights of people by asking them to ‘talk less and work more.’

The Prophet’s character is shown to be idealistic and slightly naive as he makes demands for ‘Total Revolution.’ He struggles to make a socialism that is specific to the history and context of this country. The Naya Savera Band takes the message of The Prophet to streets under great duress.

Ghosh writes the story of a time when civil liberties were limited in the name of national security. This book couldn’t have been released at a more apt time. It is a must-read to understand the psyche and logic of nation building in spite of the people who live there. The last panel (shown at the top) of the book is Ghosh’s damning critique to selective collective memory that the nation with Delhi as it Powerpolis holds onto with clenched fists. It reads “Welcome to Delhi. Do not talk about: 1) Emergency, 2)’84 Delhi Riots, 3) Babri Demolition, 4) Gujarat Riots, HAVE A PLEASANT STAY!”

Today, again, we have a criminalisation of dissent. The campaign for the release of Binayak Sen is calling this era a “silent emergency.” Recently, one feminist activist stated “During the Emergency, they jailed hundreds of activists in the name of nation building, today they just have to make an example out of a very few.” Here in the heart, the dill, of the so-called “largest democracy in the world,” citizens are only allowed to express their discontent within one city block. The parallels are uncanny: activists now are careful about what they say in public, there is shrinking democratic space, and surveillance in most public spaces.

2 thoughts on “Think Freely, but Obey: Indu Vashist”

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s