India Today - - LEISURE - —Ajoy Bose

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

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