A personal window to the past

February 4, 2024

A compelling effort to link an individual’s journey through time with that of his troubled surroundings

A personal window to the past

The pandemic-related lockdowns provided many of us with a doorway for contemplation. In those fraught moments of isolation, home-bound multitudes sought comfort in creative endeavours to prevent themselves from losing their spiritual equilibrium. It was, therefore, not uncommon to come across people who proudly asserted that they were working on their memoirs. A vast majority of these books are self-indulgent autobiographies that present vainglorious accounts of perceived valour.

Bhaskar Roy’s Fifty Year Road: A Personal History of India from the Mid-Sixties Onwards is also a product of reflections and epiphanies made during the troubled lockdown phase. Mercifully, it doesn’t suffer from any pretensions. Instead, it mines a deeper vein of truth. Roy recognises that writing a memoir isn’t just an opportunity to chronicle the past for oneself, but also a means of reclaiming and reconstructing it for a broader audience.

Fifty Year Road has its spiritual and creative genesis in the realm of private memories. However, Roy’s account liberates itself from self-centred reminiscences and spools outwards to capture the intricacies of the external world. Personal recollections serve as a conduit for a more public truth. Though he uses the first-person narrative perspective to great effect, Roy doesn’t allow himself to become the sole subject of his memoir. As a result, he straddles two narratives in a single text. The first offers a selective history of his own life; the second presents a fact-driven personal history of India as he has witnessed it. Ambitious in its scope, Roy’s memoir succeeds in drawing an intricate line of connection between the political and the personal without coming across as unwieldy.

At first glance, Fifty Year Road cannot be easily categorised as it isn’t a conventional memoir. Roy’s account is arguably a blend of autobiography, creative memoir and an ordinary man’s history. Through this skilful approach to bending genres, the narrative shuffles between the rigour of recorded facts and the emotional thrust of personal experiences. By flouting these boundaries, the author also manages to perform the kind of artistic gymnastics that has made the creative memoir a rich and abiding form.

India is often personified as a mythical mother goddess. Using this personification to great effect, Roy sows the seeds of his narrative through recollections of his own mother. An indomitable woman with a distinct magnetic pull, Ma is portrayed as a stabilising force in the refugee town where he grew up. From the outset, the author depicts her in political rather than personal hues. Ma serves as a portal for a young Bhaskar to meet radical revolutionaries. This sets the foundations for the juxtaposition of public and private realities that resonates throughout the book.

Roy’s narrative presents a powerful panoramic view of India’s past through the eyes of an ordinary man.

Roy paints on a vast canvas and captures quite a few crucial moments in India’s modern history, including the 1971 war, the Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the rise of Hindutva politics. He was six years old when the Naxalbari uprising by the far-left made international headlines. He writes passionately about the volatile landscape in Bengal during those troubled times when even children could tell the difference between the sound of a bomb going off and that of gunfire. Roy recalls how his school was burnt down by the Naxalites and he was compelled to temporarily relocate to a relative’s house until the chaos subsided. These personal recollections allow him to look beneath the surface and peel back layers of truth to understand the spirit of a lost era.

Roy’s reflections on the past aren’t defined by rigid parameters. Readers are often led through tunnels and doorways that historians would like to avoid. This approach lends a distinct interdisciplinary focus to the narrative, which enriches our understanding of the effects of key historical events in India. For instance, a thought-provoking chapter explores the literary and artistic footprint of the Naxalite movement.

In Fifty Year Road, Roy makes a conscientious effort to modulate his first-person narrative voice insofar that it remains deliberately coy on personal matters. At some critical moments, Roy’s narrator breaks free from these self-imposed confines and provides a rare glimpse into his inner turmoil during a difficult period. Nowhere is this depicted more poignantly than in Roy’s reflections on his mother’s death. He writes about how he would read voraciously as a means of allaying the “pervasive uneasiness” of the void Ma had left in his life. Reflecting on some lighter moments, the narrator paints an almost photographic portrait of the past. He describes the coconut and areca palms that danced on the boundary walls of his childhood home and the “white flowers falling like snow” on the terrace.

After reading such passages, some readers may be left with the lingering suspicion that fiction is Roy’s first love. The author of two previously published novels, Roy maintains the creative spirit of his fiction in this passionate memoir.

Fifty Year Road comes through as a compelling effort to link an individual’s journey through time with that of his troubled surroundings. Roy’s narrative presents a powerful panoramic view of India’s past through the eyes of an ‘ordinary’ man.

Fifty Year Road

A Personal History of India from the Mid-Sixties Onwards

Author: Bhaskar Roy

Publisher: Jaico Publishing House

Pages: 296

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of No Funeral for Nazia

A personal window to the past