A war between memory and oblivion


The husband of a future mother disappears. Hers was a love marriage and she was automatically separated from her family. In addition, there is the pressure from the people around. Helpless and frustrated, she calls a friend, a storyteller who lives in Delhi.

This is how “Legal Fiction” begins. Reading the novel ‘Legal Fiction’ by Chandan Pandey, I remembered Milan Kundera; precisely from the message “The struggle of man against power is like the struggle of memory against oblivion”.

When the nation-state becomes more powerful than a monarchy, the nation considers every effort to forget them as its success. Every bit of advertising, every bit of hoarding becomes an attempt to hide their exploits. In such a situation, there is an added responsibility for literature and the art of exposing all power sponsored lies through the art of telling the truth.

‘Legal Fiction’ is one of those works. A late-night phone call from his ex-girlfriend Anasuya forces writer Arjun Kumar to leave his wife and home in Delhi and travel to the town of Noma on the UP-Bihar border. The reason: Anasuya’s husband, Rafique Neel, university professor and theater director, has mysteriously disappeared.

The novel, a mystery, feeds on the distance between Noma and Delhi as the key to its narrative. The narrator Arjun is a person who believes in the “system”. On the other hand, there is a private university owner who keeps the “system” in his right pocket. With the exception of one, most of the characters in the novel are ordinary, ordinary people. There is one who manages to live his life despite the “system”.

His education, his preparation, his penchant for humanity fill him with light in a dark city. He is an ad hoc teacher in a college, leads a theater group with the students, and believes in the primitive form of theater or street plays. One day he decides to use an incident that takes place in the city to raise awareness.

He dramatizes the event and begins to stage it several times. But slowly, the characters start to disappear. You can read the story in a novel, but the play is starting to become part of public memory. It is exasperating to make a weapon of memory against oblivion.

Shortly after arriving, Arjun realizes that things are not what they seem: the police refuse to register a missing persons case. Rafique’s student Janaki is also missing, and the locals are determined to make it a “jihad of love” case.

When Arjun begins to dig deeper, what he finds puts him and everyone around him in danger. The parallel story-tracks on which this novel gallops is the story of Arjuna finding himself with the disappearance of these characters. This novel is also a document on the barbarism of popular justice. The novel is also the story of Anasuya’s future life.

In the midst of all the citizenship debate, Chandan’s work – a series of three novels the author has named – The Citizen Trilogy, should become a major intervention. An old story, told again, the 168-page novel takes root from the first page.

The story of this novel is a mystery, but the aspects of love it touches in life are unique. Mysteries are generally sympathetic to shields of power, but “legal fiction” is different. The separation may have made this novel a fan favorite of Umberto Eco’s novel “The Name the Rose” and Orhan Pamuk’s novel “My Name is Red”. In both novels, where the criticisms of civilization are taken from the pages – “Legal Fiction” however continues to drop allusions.

Inspired by the facts of India today, “Legal Fiction” is a brilliant existential thriller and chilling parable of our time.

“It’s like Kafka in Deoria. Or Camus in the belt of cows. But more specifically – Legal Fiction is an urgent literary report on how the truth is disappearing in our country. I read it with a beating heart. Amitava Kumar, author of The Lovers has rightly said about the novel.

Book: Legal Fiction: a novel by Chandan Pandey translated by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari

Posted by HarperCollins

Price: Rs299

(Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bangalore-based management consultant, literary critic and co-director of the Kalinga Literary Festival. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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