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Set in 1970s West Bengal, Tina Biswas’ The Red Road works best when it describes the minutae of women’s lives.
By Anjana Basu
There are a few set notions that people have of India – that it is a place of poverty, cow worship and violence. When this comes down to Bengal, what is best known to people and Bengalis who live abroad, is the Naxalites and the violent 70’s. Tina Biswas sets the main portion of her The Red Road in 1971. The main character in her book is a schoolmaster called Amolik who lives in an unspecified village cum town in West Bengal, some 60 miles from Calcutta. Schoolmasters are central characters in quite a few novels set in Bengal, both Bengali and English. They live in villages with cycle rickshaws and honking horns and are known to either nurture idealistic political aspirations or, like Kunal Basu’s schoolmaster in The Japanese Wife, fall in love long distance.
They also have ponds and mango orchards somewhere where children can swim, fish and pick mangoes. And when they are married they are usually at loggerheads with their hardworking wives who think that life should have more practical sweetness to it rather than being deprived by idealism.
Tina Biswas anchors her schoolteacher in these well trodden notions of poverty and violence. Her descriptions and sense of place are written for those unfamiliar with the terrain. She describes a ‘shabbily erected cycle shed’, with a half burnt bus nearby which has been destroyed by the locals because it ran over a cow. In short, a shanty town hampered by poverty, a backwater, but a backwater that nonetheless boasts a school with a headmaster and several class teachers. Amolik is married to Kumari, whose sister works as a cook in a rich Calcutta household and he pays rent to a villainous landlord, Chakraborty, who nurtures a lap dog that he calls his ‘rasgulla’.
On the face of it this sounds like a solid foundation for a story – the schoolteacher who is an idealist, his wife yearns for life’s little luxuries but finds herself delivering a child in the dark by a gutter because there is no one around, Kishori the sister-in-law who also yearns for romance and finds herself an American husband and a wedding reception at a five star hotel.
Problems begin when one considers Bengal in 1971, more specifically the influx of people from East Bengal and the Bangladesh War. That was the time when Ginberg was visiting Calcutta and wrote his Jessore Road on the conditions of the refugees who were flocking across the border to escape Pakistani atrocities. One would have expected to find some reflection of this turmoil in the novel, especially since the border is apparently close, but Biswas chooses to follow the Naxalite trail with mentions of Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal’s pathbreaking revolution.
In her urban vignettes she does include a flash of violence in Presidency College – which was then at the heart of the Naxalite unrest – but that vignette does not seem to flow very naturally from the narrative.
Biswas’ decision to locate the novel in history seems unnecessary because there is nothing in the novel that could not have happened in today’s West Bengal, with Maoists as modern day Naxalites. And the events would have seemed more believable – problems like land acquisition and Dalits belong very much to the current political landscape even though one could say that in India the more things change, the more they remain the same.
She is strongest when she describes women’s issues and that is where her novel succeeds. Kumari’s angst at her husband’s impracticality and her wish to serve her guests the finest food possible within her budget, the cook Kishori’s secret love for her master and her anger at the way she is treated by his wife. All these resonate more authentically for the critical woman reader.
Publisher: Zubaan Originals
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As a new mother, I barely have the time to read, but have just started this book. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but I loved this description of motherhood, “A doctor could choose whether or not to practise medicine but a mother could not choose whether or not to mother!… Instinctively, she knew that she couldn’t nibble on motherhood, she had to bite down on it, and hard!” Exactly how I feel!
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