As rookie bureaucrat Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) and his colleagues wait at the election booth deep inside the forests of central India that are also the hotbed of radical leftist militancy, one of them starts describing the mythical history of the place. Loknath (Raghuvir Yadav) tells Newton, Malko Netam (Anjali Patil), and Shambhu (Mukesh Prajapati) that these forests find mention in the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana. “Dandakaranya is the forest of danda or punishment,” he says. “This is where Ram, Sita and Laxman were exiled; this is where Surpanakha had her nose cut, and this is where Sita violated the Laxman Rekha and was abducted by Ravana.”
Spread over the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, the forests of Dandakaranya are cartographically the heart of India. They are also, metaphorically, the darkness in India’s heart. The area is rich in minerals, and has been the site of conflict between large corporate organizations that aspire to extract these resources and the indigenous communities that have lived here since prehistory. This has allowed the far-left Naxalites to build a support base in the area and carry on with their decades-long armed struggle. One of the most compelling accounts of this conflict was provided by novelist Arundhati Roy in her non-fiction work, Walking with the Comrades (2010). The death of 22 paramilitary personnel earlier this month in another armed battle with the Naxalites was a grim reminder of this high-intensity internal war.
In the 2017 film “Newton”, the Naxalites — also called Maoists, after their broad ideological allegiance — call for a boycott of the national elections in the region where Newton and his colleagues have been deputed. Cut off from the rest of the country, the only way to reach it is on helicopters. The polling officers have to trek for hours through inhospitable and conflict-ridden territory to reach the village where the polling booth is supposed to be set up. The village itself is uninhabited — burnt-out shells of huts and a dilapidated school, with hollowed doors and windows and Maoist graffiti on one of its outer walls, greet them. The audience — as well as polling team — are told that either the guerrilla or the government forces have followed a scorched-earth policy. They are quite evidently in the heart of darkness.
In this unreal world, there is a surfeit of performances. Some of it is evident: Newton does not tire reminding everyone that he is performing his duty; Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), the commandant of the paramilitary force that’s supposed to provide security to Newton’s team, is also performing his duty of being the state’s military arm in a conflict area. The polling team clean up the burnt-out school and set up their tables like a group of travelling actors. No voter arrives for hours — they are worried about retribution from Naxalites, but also do not really care about the democratic process of the Indian state, which is usually apathetic to their condition and anyway too far away to matter. The Gondi community here has its own political and social systems that they have been following for millennia.
When news arrives that a senior police officer is reaching the polling booth soon, accompanied by the press (both Indian and foreign), Aatma Singh and his men round up the residents from the local villages and bring them to the booth to the TV cameras. Polling continues as the reporters take pictures and interviews of the villagers. But once the senior officer and the journalists leave, it is time for Aatma Singh to pack up this performance. When Newton, a stickler for rules, insists on waiting till 3 PM (the scheduled end of the polling) the paramilitary personnel stage an ambush and send Newton and his team packing.
The performances occur at various levels. Everyone — the election officials, the Gondi villages, the paramilitary personnel, the media — is a performer and everyone is also the audience. All of this is framed by the larger performance of elections in India, the world’s largest democracy (though this status has been recently challenged). Earlier in the film, an election instructor (Sanjay Mishra) rattles off the statistics about the elections to a group of volunteers — billions of voters, hundreds of thousands of booths, millions of dollars spent. It is almost like a festival or a world cup. This, of course, is no surprise — commentators have pointed out that politics has now become almost like sports, focusing more on emotional conflicts and narratives of winners and losers rather than the burning issues at hand.
The crisis for Newton originates in a characteristic duality. He desires to perform the role of the conscientious bureaucrat. But he doesn’t wish to play the role of the civilian officer in the conflict zone. He refuses to understand that the rules of democracy do not function in this space. By not playing along with the others, he ruptures the narrative of elections in a Naxalite region. And this brings the most loyal servant of the state into conflict with the state. Newton forgets that it is impossible to exist with too much fact; that fiction is essential for life.
Newton’s condition is similar to the unnamed magistrate of a frontier town in South African novelist J M Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1980), which has been recently adapted into a film. Though often interpreted through a post-colonial lens, the thin novel nowhere indicates what kind of an empire the magistrate serves and who the “barbarians” really are. This narrative could be set in Africa, but also in ancient Rome or Greece, or modern India. The title and narrative of Coetzee’s novel has a double inspiration — Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s landmark French play “Waiting for Godot” (first performed 1953) and Greek poet C P Cavafy’s 1904 poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”.
In Cavafy’s poem, the emperor, senators, consuls and praetors of an empire wait an entire day with gifts for the “barbarians”. But the “barbarians” never come:
The “barbarians” in Cavafy’s poem, in Coetzee’s novel, and Godot in Beckett’s play, serve as one half of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic. Like Prospero and Caliban, the centre and the fringe must serve as each other’s mirror images. Refusal of either party to play their parts leads to chaos. Newton and his team — literally — wait for the “barbarians”, the Gondi and the Adivasi, in their polling booth. This proves, as usual, to be a fruitless wait. For the narrative of the nation-state, the barbarian must also exist and yet never satisfy the object of waiting.
Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published last year.