General Firebrand, the protagonist of Tathagata Bhattacharya’s debut novel, is a soldier with a soul. His military prowess and bravado are the stuff of legends and his moral clarity is much admired by his peers, but deep inside, he is as flawed as they come and is in search of redemption, and rest. Set in a fictional world that is, at times, too close to the real one, Bhattacharya’s General Firebrand and the Red Atlas (Seagull Books) is the story of a land and its people, who are waging a war against their totalitarian government helmed by a dictator, who wants to turn it into a “Special Economic Zone”, displacing and oppressing them.
Lynching is a popular ticketed event in the republic. Religion reigns supreme, but not over the wish of the supreme leader. Helmed by General Firebrand, the resistance resists, all guns blazing, fighting the dystopia with dignity, and style.
With talking animals and flying saucers, ghosts of Russian generals from the Stalinist era and characters from the Bengali writer and Bhattacharya’s father Nabarun Bhattacharya’s last and unfinished novel, General Firebrand and the Red Atlas is a novel that, in itself, is uncategorisable. A satire on authoritarianism, it is a chronicle of the good fight, of a revolution, with all its magic and misery. However, the novel is a bit too fast paced for themes of such gravity and one loses conviction in the characters and the plot at times.
The grandson of writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, Bhattacharya, who stays in Noida, says that the novel is, in parts, a response to what has been happening in the country over the past few years. “I’m not one of those writers who can write about a very esoteric middle-class life, living in a cocoon. That’s not the school of writers I come from,” says Bhattacharya.
Excerpts from a conversation with the writer:
Who or what inspired the character of General Firebrand?
I have met people in my life, especially when working as a journalist, who have certain traits of him. Also, growing up as an only child, I had made up an imaginary big brother, who used to live on a tree in our garden (laughs). General Firebrand is an amalgamation of all of them.
The language of the novel has a distinctive bareness to it.
I deliberately use language as a weapon. I wanted the book to be irreverent and the prose to be zany. For example, there are certain images or even names of characters that the so-called safe genre of literature might find pretty grotesque.
I have used characters from my father’s last novel Mablage Novel (The Novel of the Mob), which was unfinished at the time of his death in 2014. It was published in Bengal with the last 20 pages left blank for the readers to make their own conclusions. I used the characters because I wanted to give them some kind of closure. I think I owed it to him. I have also been a very keen follower of the Second World War, and the book has several Russian characters from that time. I am what they call a Russophile because I grew up with a lot of Russian literature and music. There are also Indian characters from the time of World War II including fighter pilots Indra Lal Roy and Sardar Hardit Singh Malik. I have always been very interested in history and international affairs.
Would you say Calcutta is at the heart of the novel?
I’ve based the story in Calcutta because it’s a city I know like the back of my hand. Although I’ve lived in Delhi for a pretty long time now, I still do not know the place much. So, I wanted that city to come into play, especially its rough side, its underbelly. Since I’m so conversant with the city I’ve used it as a focal point. But honestly there wasn’t a specific preference to set it there.
You come from a family of radical writers, including your grandfather and playwright Bijon Bhattacharya. Do you think that has influenced your own writing?
A good thing about growing up in a family of writers is that you will be surrounded by books. You get a lot of exposure to literature from all over the world. My grandparents and my father wrote very different genres of literature. My grandmother wrote a lot of historical works and also focused on gender issues, while my father was a very modernist writer. One thing I’ve learned from observing them is that a writer should never be taken in by comparisons. Every age will shape its own writers.