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The Death Script: A book on life and death in Chhattisgarh

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on July 24, 2020 Published on July 24, 2020

What lies within: Among the many books on the Naxalite movement in English, The Death Script is the rare inward-looking one istock.com   -  ISTOCK.COM

Ashutosh Bhardwaj’s book is one of the most original works of non-fiction from India in recent times

* It draws from the author’s stint as a reporter in “Naxal country”

* The ‘Death Script’ is what regions such as Bastar end up becoming

Ashutosh Bhardwaj’s The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country is a genre-bending book that signals its ambition straight off the bat, through structural ingenuity and a willingness to adopt different narrative forms. While the book starts off as a conventional memoir, it soon branches off into the various strands of reportage that led to its making in the first place. It draws from the author’s stint (2011-15) as a reporter in “Naxal country” and, while novelistic in its presentation, it remains forever wary of the chronicler’s malleable relationship with the truth. Some of its most telling passages are ‘narrated’ by people who’re not the author.

The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country / Ashutosh Bhardwaj / Non-fiction / Fourth Estate/HarperCollins / ₹599

 

The book’s formal bravado and relentless self-examination may not be to everybody’s taste, but there’s no doubt that The Death Script is one of the most original and interesting works of non-fiction from India in recent times.

In Bhardwaj’s framing, the ‘Death Script’ is what regions such as Bastar end up becoming: A kind of twilight zone where the worst impulses of the Indian nation state are given free rein. With every futile report he files (for the adivasi’s lot, of course, does not improve in the slightest, across all these years), Bhardwaj the reporter feels more and more complicit. No wonder, then, that the book slips into the second person when it is in this ‘confrontational’ mode — the ‘you’ is meant as an indictment of both the author as well as the average middle-class reader (such as this reviewer).

“You are diagnosed to be diseased with the deceased. (...) Teenage boys, rebel lovers, pregnant women, policemen, girls hit by bullets between their legs. The world believes them to be your subjects, embedded on your trophies for investigative journalism. You alone know that you are their subject. They write themselves through you. You are their chosen narrator.”

The usage of the second person is reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, where the author uses ‘you’ to address the reader directly. In general, Bhardwaj (who is also a writer of Hindi fiction) uses literary examples liberally in the narrative. Walter Benjamin and Agyeya make brief appearances. Right at the beginning, a reference to Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies drops a vital hint about the nature of this enterprise — Auster’s narrator was looking for “a peaceful place to die”, whereas Bhardwaj runs in vain from Bijapur in Chhattisgarh to Varanasi (which is, of course, a very different kind of a ‘death script’), unable to fully escape the spectres of death he’s becoming more and more inured to.

Even more intriguingly, the passage cited above is preceded by an aside about a novelist “who embarked on road trips to collect butterflies”, noting that in Bhardwaj’s case, the dead have “replaced” the butterflies. This is, of course, a reference to amateur lepidopterist and occasional writer Vladimir Nabokov, who conceived of the idea behind Lolita during one such butterfly road trip — a novel still considered to be a master class in guilt and (failed) redemption.

And so we follow Bhardwaj the reporter, even as he carries the ‘vetaal’ (ghost) of Bhardwaj the writer around with him throughout the narrative, reminding him of his limitations. There are frequent bursts of reportage involving abductions, police jeeps, magistrates and ‘gopaniya sainiks’ (ex-cadre informants). These sections are written, more or less, in a utilitarian journalist’s register, breaking character every now and then to comment on the infinite little absurdities of Bhardwaj’s beat. But while these passages are well written, The Death Script truly finds its voice when Bhardwaj, who was a reporter for The Indian Express, turns his focus on the ‘smaller picture’, so to speak — tangential, abstract episodes far removed from the ‘action’. Like a passage where the author finds a frog in his living room, staring back at him. Eventually, Bhardwaj names the frog Tutuji and it becomes a companion of sorts. This passage starts off as a comedic aside, or so one thinks, until the author’s thoughts return, of course, to questions of mortality. “I (...) felt sad remembering the biology class in school when, after laying it down in a tray and fixing its limbs with nails, I had slaughtered one of Tutuji’s ancestors.” The passage’s impact is heightened because the last line sneaks up on you — a Wes Anderson movie with a Wes Craven climax.

Until now, books about the Naxalite movement in English have been either reportage with regular slices of history (like Red Sun) or more character-driven efforts such as Let’s Call Him Vasu. The Death Script is the first inward-looking book in this group, but that’s not the only reason why you should read it. When it comes to a red-button topic like the Naxalite movement, newcomers to the issue can easily get lost in the tangled mesh of the news cycle, in the vagaries of State-sponsored ‘news’ written (or broadcast) for purposes other than information. In such a scenario, it’s not enough to familiarise oneself with the ‘basic facts’ — indeed, as Bhardwaj clearly believes, even a rigorously ‘investigative’ account can only go so far.

That’s where The Death Script comes in, with its imaginative churn of fact and fiction, reportage and confession. This is a challenging and hugely impressive book, well worth your time.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

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Published on July 24, 2020
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