Speakeasy: Shape of Things

Pratik Kanjilal
Black Humour: How the world saw India circa 1975.

Before it went into decline in the Nineties, Punch used to publish an annual number, Pick of Punch. The 1977 annual has now fallen into my clutches, edited by William Davis, the talented German-British financial journalist who died in February this year in his home in Cannes, and who had helmed Punch through part of the Sixties and Seventies. In his introduction, he tells the reader that though the magazine was a weekly pegged closely to the news, the annual number preferred timeless stories over dated politics: I doubt if you still want to read what we had to say about the elections in India. So there is more about Christmas than there is about Mrs Gandhi

That s some indication of how closely the international press had followed the Emergency, and the fall of Mrs Gandhi and her son Sanjay in the 1977 general election. Punch dropped Mrs Gandhi in favour of Idi Amin Dada (1925-2003) for this particular issue only because he was an immediate threat, having sundered diplomatic relations with London, declared the British to have been defeated , and assumed the title of CBE not Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, but Conqueror of the British Empire. The rest of the issue is indeed devoted to issues domestic to the UK, like the rise of squatter culture among the youth, the first challenge to drunk driving, and immigration the Arabs who would soon take over premium retail and football, and the strange phenomenon of immigrants from India and Pakistan who were apparently voting conservative in order to choke off further immigration. In a cartoon by Ken Mahood (memorable for lampooning Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; see punch.photoshelter.com), the Sikh proprietor of Oberoi s Sweet Centre, across the way from the Southall branch of Bank of India, is told by a conservative politician: The next thing, Labour will be nationalising your bank and slapping import controls on your petha, alu tikki, fanian and passion juice. The latter two cultural references are now inscrutable, but bank nationalisation and import controls? How very Mrs Gandhi.

While it s interesting to be reminded that the English were eagerly reading political satire about India in 1977, writing here at home took the Emergency seriously. Emergency non-fiction has performed well PN Dhar, Kuldip Nayar, TV Rajeswar, Coomi Kapoor and Pranab Mukherjee have been widely appreciated in English alone but fiction should have harvested a bumper crop. When events warp the sense of reality, dystopian satire generally steps up to tell the truth. The suspension of rights, the majoritarian steamrolling of Parliament, the swoop on mainstream political leaders, on a scale which would remain unchallenged until our times, provided sufficient material, but, perhaps, the incident was too up close and personal to play around with. In Hindi, Kamleshwar s Kaali Aandhi and Nirmal Verma s Raat ka Reporter appeared in 1989, well after India had moved on from the Emergency. Rahi Masoom Raza s blistering Katra bi Arzoo preceded them in 1978, hitting out in the very foreword of one paragraph, datelined Bandstand, Bandra, Bombay: I affirm that this story is a lie. The dramatis personae are fake, the place names are wrong and the incidents are fabricated. But I am not ashamed to tell this lie.

Salman Rushdie s Midnight s Children (1981), which went at Mrs Gandhi with savage glee, Shashi Tharoor s The Great Indian Novel (1989) and Rohinton Mistry s A Fine Balance (1995) are the English texts most frequently referenced because of their international readership, along with the work of writers who were better known domestically like Manohar Malgonkar, OV Vijayan, Nayantara Sahgal, Ranjit Lal, Raj Gill, Balwant Gargi and, recently, Jeet Thayil. And, in 1977, Abu Abraham (a contributor to Punch when he was in London and, later, a powerful voice of The Indian Express) published a book of his cartoons and drawings that could not appear in print during the Emergency.

But here, one is not counting the extraordinary volume of fiction which used to be published in periodicals at that time. Though the Illustrated Weekly of India is remembered best and Debonair is slyly referred to, even cookery magazines had robust fiction sections. They provided a valuable platform for new and occasional writers, whose work ceased to appear in the public domain when Indian magazines began to fail in the 1990s, and who would remain in limbo until Indian publishing persified in the late Nineties, and literary magazines began to appear. Almost all of what was obviously a very large body of popular work in the Seventies and Eighties was safely archived in the bellies of termites after the magazines of that eventful period folded up, and sadly, we no longer have a full picture of the spectrum of creative work published during the Emergency and immediately after.

Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues