Human Rights and the Novel

Jan 01, 2024
By Anam Syed, Aishwarya Ravikumar

Aakar Patel’s new book titled ‘After Messiah’ is a foray into fiction after years of writing empirical, data-based non-fiction. After the Messiah (a character called Big Man in the novel) is gone, what  happens? Aakar looks to answer this question, with hope. 

On 9th December, PUCL organised a book discussion on this novel, themed around imagining new possibilities for the human rights struggle through literature. Aakar Patel, along with 3 other panellists, Dr. Arul Mani, faculty at St. Joseph’s University, Devika Rege, an author and Arvind Narrain, lawyer and writer, discussed the role of fiction and literature in the human rights movement. Aishwarya R from PUCL-K moderated the discussion.

Dr. Arul Mani illustrated how the works of Franz Kafka play a very important role in today’s times. He said, “Through his work, one learns to laugh at abstract systems that seem daunting. The very absurdity of his work provides one with what he described as the ‘imaginative audacity’ of fiction. This audacity is what gives us permission to bring about change. If Gregor Samasa can one day wake up as a beetle, why can I not do this? Fiction is an acknowledgement of possibility, in today’s times.  When discourses seem lifeless and tired, when talking about justice is often costly and difficult, fiction provides sustenance  in   moments of exhaustion. When I was a child, during the Emergency, I often heard the word ‘underground’. I thought it meant that you dig yourself under the ground and hide. But now, reflecting on the term as an adult, I realise how underground can also mean safe houses for a person’s imagination. Fiction can provide safe houses for the imagination when human rights are under challenge.” Arul’s illustration of the role of fiction and literature became the nexus for the discussion as the other panelists brought in their varied responses to the book. 

Devika Rege eloquently brought in a writer’s perspective on the human rights novel. “In fiction, there is no  burden of proof. Details do not have to be true to ring true. After all, fiction is a process of the creation of composites, a process of synthesis, where you mix and match from what you know. What is it about this process of creation of composites that attracts people so much? It offers new imaginative possibilities. A major feature of authoritarianism is that common people see no other possibilities, and this lack of possibilities is a failure of imagination.” 

The book was also described by her as an education in citizenship. She emphasised on the need for fiction today, because of how it allows us to make arguments with passion and imagination, and in times of rising authoritarianism, this  is a  dire need. 

Arvind Narrain echoed this reflection and said that fiction allows one to test the limits of what is possible. “It allows for the pushing of boundaries. Fiction allows for the play of  imagination and it is imagination which provides hope. “If the freedoms which we got used to are being hemmed in and further and further restricted, what does one do ? How does one cope ? In this rendering, If your space narrows, you work with the space that you have, while working to expand the space. What is possible within the limits within which we are confined? Is it the time for despair or the assertion of freedom even within limits ?”

He also highlighted how the novel is imbued with the belief that even a single person’s integrity can play a powerful role in bringing about change. “The Gandhian idea of the small still voice of conscience holds true across history. I think that Aakar’s sketch of Mira’s character comes from his own background as an activist committed to change.  It brings to mind a singular personality called Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin was a man who was born in the town called Lvov in what is today Western Ukraine and was a man driven by the idea that mass killing should be an offence. As a student he was outraged by the treatment of the Armenians by the Ottoman empire (which today is characterized as a genocide). When the Nazi war comes to Poland, he flees. But  he continues to collect the decrees published by the Nazis in all the countries that they occupied. Using the collection of decrees  he analyzes the Nazi rule as an effort to systematically destroy the Jewish people. This he characterizes as the crime of genocide in a book he writes called Axis Rule in Europe. He then spends his item lobbying to get the term accepted in international law and he succeeds by the sheer force of his moral conviction to get the first human rights treaty fo the post war world passed, namely the Convention on Genocide. This he characterizes as the ‘epitaph on his mothers  grave’.  Lemkin is an illustration of  how a singular driven person with the force of moral conviction can bring about change. The character of Mira induces meditations such as this of the power of the moral voice and how individual suffering can be transformed into convictions that can shape history.” 

Arvind also highlighted how literature has the power of challenging a narrative overwhelmingly controlled by the state. “The novelist Milan Kundera says, the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. This novel is one  way through which  alternative voices, dreams and imaginations are articulated which challenge the narrative of the authoritarian regime.”

Aakar Patel, the author who is also a courageous  human rights activist, shared how he ended up writing the novel by accident. “India as a country is filled to the brim with material for a writer to work with, there was an incredible amount of material that I had to draw from. When I sat down to write, I couldn’t channel it into non fiction. I wanted to capture the absurdity of the events of the country. There is a meaning and richness in the events of Indian society which I tried to write about. The influences of characters in the novel were people I met when I joined Amnesty International: people who are moral, who have an ethical code which goes against the norm, having met them and worked with them made writing about their lives easier.” Talking about heroism and the protagonists of his novel, he said that he also wanted to write about the lawyers. “Lawyers as a profession have the potential to feel so much despair, for them at the end of a day there is a judgement which spells failure. However, they still don their black coat of armour the next day and go to work. This attitude of going to work, not falling into despair is important. Sometimes things which evoke despair are also so morbidly funny that the only thing we can do is laugh and ridicule, however in a novel there needs to be movement and development for the story to be interesting.” 

In the novel,  when the Messiah is gone, the protagonist, Mira, with no political aspirations whose life has been spent in resisting and fighting authoritarianism begins the act of building an alternative. She works towards moral ends through moral means, and through her the novel explores the role of conscience.  

Aakar’s novel seeks an answer to the question of what happens after the Messiah is gone  and ends up providing the reader with the possibility of hope in difficult circumstances.  

In today’s times when  everyone has to be  careful, from the language they choose to write in, to the things they feel is acceptable to say, an invisible line has been established which few are comfortable crossing. In such times, fiction is the underground; it is the space which  allows us to explore possibilities and to cultivate our own ‘small still voice of conscience’. 

These are the reasons behind PUCL organising this  event. Understanding the politics of literature becomes necessary to an organisation which faces the  difficult challenge  of defending civil rights today. Aakar’s novel which is born out of his long career in journalism,  his human rights activism both with Amnesty International and as a member of PUCL emerges from this crucible. It reflects the realities he has confronted often with humour and passion as well as draws from  people he has met with whom he has forged  ties of solidarity, moral fortitude, and most importantly hope. All these are good reasons for reading the novel.