Saturday, 14 May 2016

Review: Revolutionary Hearts by Pema Donyo

1 star

The plot and writing of Revolutionary Hearts were both a bit lacklustre, but I probably would have given it a 2.5 if it hadn't perpetrated some really intense symbolic violence and erasure. 

Revolutionary Hearts is set in India in 1924. Somehow, although don't ask me how, the Americans have an operative named Warren masquerading as a British general, so that they can investigate whether this guy named Raj Singh is an anarchist who might be a threat to the U.S.. I don't know, maybe that's legit, I didn't check it out. Anyhow, Warren meets Raj's Anglo-Indian sister Parineeta, who Raj sends to find out exactly how much this general suspects about his activities. Then Warren gets exposed by an actual British general (or possibly someone of another lower rank, I can't remember), so then he and Parineeta take off across the country. Parineeta is supposed to be leading Warren to Lucknow where he can meet up with his fellow operative, but then they magically meet up with Raj and his fellow freedom fighters and shit goes down. (More on that later.)

For the first half of this book, I was cruising along. Well, it was reasonably unmemorable and I had some pretty big gripes - the use of racial slurs, and things that seemed stereotypical or just plain wrong, such as a reference to butter chicken when surely it would have been dahl or similar - but I was hanging in there.

We're not given much information about the organisation Parineeta's brother is part of, the Hindustan Republican Association, except that the Americans are worried they might be anarchists. Thanks to that and my rusty Indian history it was only halfway through that the light-bulb went off over my head: the Hindustan Republican Association was what would later become the HSRA, and the train robbery that Parineeta's brother is organising is the Kakori Revolution. Once I had that realisation, I got really mad, and I just kept getting madder.

The story of the HRSA, and Bhagat Singh as its face, is one of the most quintessential and dearly held stories of Indian Independence Movement, and here it was sanitised until it was devoid of all context or sense of place, except for random info-dumps on the Rowlatt Act or the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre or some other barbaric act of imperialism, used only to give the characters motivation. It's been co-opted so that it has a three-quarters white hero and half-white heroine at its centre, displacing the full-blood Indians who rightfully belong there. Men who - by the way - were later hanged for the murder of a passenger on that train, though there's no mention of this, not even in an Author's Note at the end. In this fictionalised version, the passenger was killed by the heroine. So, what, I'm just supposed to watch our heroine and her hero ride off into the sunset, and separate this from the knowledge that, IRL, five men were sentenced to death and another 14 jailed for their role in the robbery, for the murder that the author had the heroine commit? Because the level of cognitive dissonance inherent in that is INSANE, let alone the statement that makes on what's important and what isn't.

If it's meant to be a fictionalised version where people don't get punished and murdered, then fictionalise it. Don't use the names of the men who were hanged for the names of your characters - so far as I can see, all of the revolutionary characters bear the names of the real revolutionaries, including Raj Singh (who got ten years imprisonment, by the way, so the heroine lives her HEA while her brother rots away? Nice!). Change the name of the town from Kakori. I don't know, just do something so that this isn't as horrible. Because, as it stands, the author's strategy is simply to assume that nobody with any knowledge of Indian history (or opposable thumbs to type things into Google) will read this book and put two and two together.

I went back and forth about whether to post this, and what form it should take, for a long time, because this isn't my history, my country, or people. Ultimately, I have written as much and as strongly as I did because I was upset, although I have little right to be, and even less to centralise my feelings. Basically, this is a frustrated rant, and there are considered critques out there that Indian and South Asian writers (and POC in general) make all the time, talking about the hurt done by bad representation. Romance author Suleikha Snyder wrote a post just the other day, when a prominent romance author called for recommendations set in India, and none that came back were by South Asians. A lot of that deals with the erasure inflicted by making characters half-white.

I don't really know how to finish this post up, because everything potential ending I've written sounds either really didactic, like a platitude, or more ME ME ME, and I don't want to go down any of those paths. So, over and out, I guess.

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