LOVE AND CENSORSHIP
BY SETTING HER LOVE STORY IN THE TIME OF THE EMERGENCY, AUTHOR SRISHTI CHAUDHARY DOES SOMETHING ALTOGETHER NOVEL
TThe most striking thing about Srishti Chaudhary’s Once upon a Curfew is its subject— a love story set in the time of the Emergency. Period romances in India usually stay away from political events of the contemporary era and this must indeed be one of the very rare ones to use as a backdrop those traumatic 19 months in the mid-1970s when democracy was snuffed out. It is, therefore, quite compelling for someone who lived through and wrote on the travails of that period to find the plot unravelling around horrors imposed by the Emergency regime, such as forcible sterilisations and
mass incarceration of dissenting leaders and activists.
There is little hint of the drama to follow at the start of the book when the main protagonist Indu (named after the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, who her father works for) inherits, along with her sister Amita, a large Lutyens Delhi apartment and its extensive collection of books from her maternal grandmother on her death. Her brother-in-law wants the apartment as an office for his iron nails business, but Indu determinedly fights him off and turns it into a library and reading room for women. Supporting her in the battle for the women’s library is young lawyer Rana with radical leanings who swiftly becomes a close friend.
Soon, an unspoken romance blossoms between the two, fuelled by a shared love for Bollywood star Rajesh Khanna and zany quips. All of a sudden, the Emergency is declared and Rana disappears without notice. A broken-hearted Indu seems to have little option but to accept an arranged marriage with an MBA graduate, Rajat, about to return from his studies abroad.
The plot turns around quite dramatically with the return of Rana into Indu’s life, and the Emergency leaps into the centre of the narrative. Indu finds herself joining her lawyer buddy in a bizarre mission to free their activist friend Fawad from jail. They do so with the help of a hidden cache of photographs, exposing forcible sterilisations by the authorities, but not before many twists and turns, and the revelation that even leaders of the anti-Emergency struggle have a dark side.
There are some inaccuracies in historic detail and the plot is quite far-fetched for those who witnessed the Emergency. Still, these are easily forgiven as the book manages to bring alive a slice of recent history that has largely been ignored in fiction so far.
The novel is quite compelling for those who lived through the travails of the Emergency
LIFE DURING THE EMERGENCY A statist hoarding in New Delhi, 1976
ONCE UPON A CURFEW by Srishti Chaudhary PENGUIN `299; 304 pages