The final scene in Iti Mrinalini (2010), a film by Aparna Sen, shows the protagonist walking her dog early in the morning after a night spent contemplating suicide. It is a new dawn in more ways than one. She has decided to give life another chance. However, life throws a curve ball. A gunshot. Curtains. Quite anti-climactic. Death strikes at the precise moment when you have given up on your plan to embrace it with absolute certainty and willingness.

Tathagata Bhattacharya’s blistering debut novel, General Firebrand and His Red Atlas, reminded me of the closing scene in Iti Mrinalini, and left a lump in my throat and an ache in my heart. There was a gunshot in the film. There is a landmine in this book. Shock supersedes surprise.

Guerrillas versus fascists

Two camps. One comprises the guerrilla forces of the People’s Resistance Committee (PRC), led by Colonel Firebrand, and the other is the ruling fascist Republic, at the helm of which are Madame President Nida Dodi and Mr President Adam Bum, whose mission is to transform Sands, a coal-rich province, into a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) much to the chagrin of the residents and citizens who have resolved to fight against injustice, resist the inevitable displacement of indigenous communities as a necessary and often undisputed outcome of “development” and “progress”, challenge an authoritarian regime which is least interested in working “for the people, of the people, and by the people”, and restore their own dignity and territorial integrity. Obviously, it is a clash between the powerful and the powerless; the “haves” and the “have-nots”. President Dodi wants to “rebuild Calcutta to her liking” by making an example out of the resistance fighters in Sands and forcing them to work as cheap labour in the factories and ports of the affluent and glitzy Tantilash and Davnagar.

However, the megalomaniac’s desire to script a country’s future premised on capitalist ethics, privatisation, free market economy, minimum or no welfare schemes and subsidies for the most vulnerable, reckless exploitation of natural resources, and utter disdain for tribal groups is fiercely opposed by Colonel Firebrand and PRC Guerrillas. And, in this good fight to reinstate democracy, freedom, and autonomy, a motley cast from a historical past becomes an able ally.

This diverse crew features ghosts of Konstantin Rokossovsky, Marshal Malinovsky, Vasily Zaitsev, Marshal Zhukov, Chengiz Khan, fictional characters from the author’s father Nabarun Bhattacharya’s unfinished last novel, and of course, the animal kingdom, starring Talking Crane, Black Panther, Blind Hyena, Raven, Civet Cat, and more. The most prominent character, in fact, the hero, is Nature, whose intervention proves that humanity with its prejudices, follies, inflated egos, and misplaced sense of authority is less than a speck of dust.

Domination over the world is an illusion that humankind erroneously believes it can thrive on and mutilate without reparation or retribution. The boon of immortality, however, is not granted to the greedy. As someone for whom sustainability and climate crisis are essential concerns, the author has woven a fable-like narrative in a deliberate attempt to coax his readers out of slumber and make them take notice of the destruction and degradation that humanity has pushed itself into in its unabashed disregard for ecological sustenance.

Colonel Firebrand – amidst the noise and commotion of artillery and ammunition, fury of power-hungry politicians, and death of innocent people in wars – keeps going back to a vision in which he has finally shed the moniker of “General Firebrand” and the responsibilities that come with it, and is instead living a dream that has him, Roy, staying in a quaint corner somewhere up in The Bald Mountain with his wife and son, growing vegetables and flowers.

Again, the desire to stop being a performer as the tough leader of a military council and unite with his inner, true self is not about leading a peaceful life away from the cacophony of wars and politics as an individualistic, self-gratifying enterprise; it is about acknowledging, recognising, and implementing the universal goodness of human survival solely thriving on co-existence with nature, harmony with diverse cultures and communities, and love among all living species without bruising or hurting someone for private gain. Therefore, even though General Firebrand is replete with accounts of strife, violence, and crime, the central emotion is that of healing and recovery.

Intent in imagination

The author’s intent behind creating a theatrical stage where humans, ghosts, supernatural forces, birds and ospreys intermingle, almost in a state of frenzy, is not an ostentatious exhibit of his own knowledge of world history, major political uprisings and aftermaths through centuries. On the contrary, the objective is to trigger an awakening, fuel consciousness-raising, and revive memory – which is a fleeting thing – about where we are headed as a civilisation in an era where we have collectively (unfortunately) turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to what is happening in Manipur, in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Afghanistan…in our own backyard. The state of oblivion that we are in cannot guarantee a haven of homeostasis because what happens around us is inching closer to what will happen to us. To think we can ignore what happens to “others” and continue living as if everything is in order is a colossal fallacy.

In The Story Smuggler, Bulgarian writer and International Booker Prize winner Georgi Gospodinov recounts the exact moment he realised he had lost his childhood – at the funeral of his grandmother. As a child, afraid to fall asleep in the dark, he would stretch out his arm only to meet the outstretched arm of his grandmother who gave him comfort and took away his fear of loneliness. Gospodinov confesses he is still afraid to fall asleep in the dark. The phrase, “sleeps like an angel” is more suited to the West, he observes and goes on to say that “sleeps as if slaughtered” has more resonance in his part of the world given its history of terror, apprehension, violence, and conflict. Sleep is equated with morbidity rather than sound rest.

Interestingly, the motif of sleep recurs in General Firebrand and that too with reference to the protagonist for whom sleep is a luxury, a necessity, and a safe haven. The book ends with the lines (referencing the opening passage of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s novel Herbert ): “Let him sleep. Sleep makes everything go away.” The question is, did he sleep like an angel or did he sleep like he was slaughtered?

General Firebrand and His Red Atlas, Tathagata Bhattacharya, Seagull Books.