When the hurly-burly’s done (2024)

In the strange world of Tathagata Bhattacharya’s debut novel, the promise of profundity beckons, inviting the reader to embark on a journey fraught with peril and adventure. This world is populated by fire-breathing revolutionaries and evil world leaders, strange spectres and apparitions, circling ospreys and deadly flying saucers, and a talking black panther with a dangerous grin—a deliberate nod and salute to Mikhail Bulgakov and to the nonpareil countercultural Bengali author Nabarun Bhattacharya, Tathagata’s father.

General Firebrand and His Red Atlas

By Tathagata Bhattacharya

Seagull Books
Pages: 220
Price: Rs.599

Bhattacharya tells the story of a protracted war between two formidable unlikely forces with gusto and elan. On the one hand, there is the iron-fisted totalitarian regime of a “loony” Madame President Nida Dodi (modelled on Indira Gandhi of Emergency fame with a spattering of Mamata Banerjee and You-Know-Who). An insight into her personality is offered through her “strictly asexual” affair with a mystery man, who turns out to be a man running a tiny electronics repair shop in her capital city, with no role to play in the narrative.

Once upon a time, Madame Dodi had ordered the entire province of Sands (a mineral-rich province coveted for its strategic significance, and with a provincial capital of dilapidated mansions called Calcutta) to be divided into a number of special economic zones among the corporates, which caused the population of Sands to rise up in arms. Madame Dodi’s regime is supported by the military might of World Island and its president, Adam Bum.

Bum holds the keys to the Bomb but mostly does lots of hanky-panky business at Nancy’s. As with the mystery man and many other characters who appear and disappear, Nancy has no role to play except to act as a commentary on President Bum’s insecurities regarding his manhood. Together, Madame Dodi and President Bum are rulers of an upside-down world order fuelled by greed and tyranny.

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On the other side, there are the guerrilla insurgents of the People’s Resistance Committee (PRC) fighting against the combined armies and navies of Dodi and Bum with “socialist realist” resolve—almost cardboard cut-outs out of Soviet propaganda during the Great Patriotic War. Led by a Castro-like El Commandante and the indomitable Colonel Firebrand (who hovers between Che Guevara, an ageing Mao Zedong, and a middle-aged Bengali post-left intellectual wallowing in self-pity), the insurgents take control of Sands and declare their independence.

The battle begins

And so, on the shores of a mysterious island resembling that inhabited by the Sentinelese over the last few millennia, the stage is set for a military confrontation of epic proportions, a battle not merely for territory but, as the narrative voice insists, for the very soul of the planet. Soon, birds and supernatural beasts of the jungle take sides in the territorial clash of humans, warring over their claims to lands and energy resources.

“Bhattacharya’s naming of his characters is often Rabelaisian: apart from Dodi and Bum, the commander of the World Island fleet goes by the name Admiral Limpdick. Sometimes, the naming is playful, endearing, untranslatably Bengali in sentiment: General Firebrand’s dog is called Bhombol.”

As the forces of resistance rally against the encroaching tide of warships, their ranks swell with a motley assortment of allies drawn from the past. Among them stand the spectres of Indra Lal Roy, Sardar Hardit Singh Malik, Georgy Zhukov, Konstantin Rokossovsky, and Rodion Malinovsky, forgotten real-life heroes of air and land warfare now enlisted in Sands’ struggle for liberation. In an initial parley, the ghost of Vasily Zaitsev, the legendary marksman from Stalingrad, downs a great number of Dodi’s troops. Later, in the climactic battle against the joint airborne and naval divisions of Dodi and Bum, the Mongol hordes of Chengiz Khan enter the fray like the ghost army inThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, notwithstanding the Great Khan’s complex legacy of conquest, empire-building, torture, and executions that went into the making of the totalitarian Soviet state, and what followed after.

When the hurly-burly’s done (1)

Cover of General Firebrand and His Red Atlas.| Photo Credit:By special arrangement

With each clever turn of phrase, every evocative military tableau, the reader is beckoned into this struggle rife with strangeness. Bhattacharya’s naming of his characters is often Rabelaisian: apart from Dodi and Bum, the commander of the World Island fleet goes by the name Admiral Limpdick. Sometimes, the naming is playful, endearing, untranslatably Bengali in sentiment: General Firebrand’s dog is called Bhombol.

In his eagerness to revisit the irreverence of Bulgakov’s prose or the hard-hitting, unsparing energy of Nabarun’s satires, Tathagata risks succumbing to pastiche. At times, his narrative voice speedily skips over: the characters seem to exist more as archetypes than as fully realised individuals, their actions dictated more by the exigencies of plot than by the demands of the narrative.

Yet amidst the hurly-burly of battle and the shadow of imitation, there are moments of poignant clarity, convergence points of fiction and reality that cut through the hyperreal narrative haze like beacons in the dark. In a quiet corner of south Calcutta, Firebrand finds himself face to face with Marshal Bhodi, a character from his late father’s fiction. As they drink together and talk of the uncertain future, Firebrand does not hold back when revealing the deeper recesses of loss and longing that lie at the core of his being.

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In this moment of vulnerability, Firebrand lays bare his soul, his voice trembling with the weight of his burden. “I ---,” he whispers, the unsaid hanging heavy in the air.

“‘You thought I was a figment of your old man’s imagination. No?’ Bhodi grinned, and Firebrand could see his tobacco-stained teeth.”

In that shared moment of honesty, pain, and camaraderie, the line between fiction and reality blurs, and the rawness of Firebrand’s pain hits you. As in life and all great fiction, that pain is unrelenting, wordless.

Deeptanil Ray is an amateur reader and bibliotaph. He teaches English at Sree Chaitanya College, Habra, West Bengal.

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When the hurly-burly’s done (2024)


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