Amolik Dey is passionately committed to social justice, and 1960s India offers him a hyper-abundance of causes—caste and class oppression, combined with the failure of the state to provide for its neediest, especially those in rural areas. Amolik, who works as a schoolteacher in a small village near Calcutta, yearns to overthrow (or at least loosen) the stranglehold of the upper-caste landowners, and is willing to sacrifice personal comfort, chances at career advancement, and monetary gain to achieve his end. The catch? He never really consults his family about his decision.
The Red Road by British author Tina Biswas opens with a scene of Amolik’s wife Kumari giving birth to their son, and this sets the stage for the primacy of Kumari’s identity as wife and mother. Kumari, who wants Amolik to concentrate on the straightforward business of livelihood and family, is however silenced by his intellectual assertiveness and her own powerlessness as a non-earner.
Amolik is a classic warning of the dangers of paternalistic colonialism. Born into a poor family of tea-pickers, he’s provided with an education due to the intervention of the (British) estate owners, which in turns leads to his awareness of the injustice of his situation. Amolik becomes increasingly radicalized, rejecting not just caste and class markers, but also material advancement. Now, depending on where you’re placed in India, the last can mark the difference between a life with or without dignity–a little extra money can translate into running water, electricity, and the cessation of dependence on broken-down public infrastructure. Amolik’s philosophy of self-denial makes Kumari feel “as if by the simple act of wanting, by measuring her life by what she (and not the whole world) had and didn’t have, she had fallen to greed, having been deceived by a beguiling but fallacious social order, and had therefore failed to understand the real meaning and purpose of life. She wanted to ask him, ‘Amu, is it really so bad to want things? Not luxuries, but just things which make life a little bit more fun and comfy?’”
Amolik is a commonplace contradiction—a man who is so consumed by the bigger issues that he neglects the pressing ones under his nose. This situation pervades life and literature, and when I was younger, I felt that grand ideas (or genius or talent) needed to be promoted regardless of collateral damage. Now, I mostly observe that it’s the women who bear the fallout. Have you read Litlove’s WDLT post on her relationship with French literature, where it all fell into place once she aligned herself with the women characters? I’ve gone through a similar process; in reading The Red Road, I sympathized with Amolik, but aligned myself with Kumari.
This book isn’t about picking sides– Biswas’s characters are morally complex creations, with manifold motivations. Amolik, dazzled by idealism, joins the Naxalite movement (a social revolution that adopted violence, including murder, to achieve its goal of equality), and the contradictions of his position gradually edge him towards a nervous breakdown. It’s no spoiler to mention that disaster is inevitable; as Wikipedia tells you, the Naxalite movement splintered under the thrust of its militancy. But Amolik is also a man who invites untouchables to his classroom, and who contradicts the rich landowner when others are competing to see who can kowtow faster. And Kumari’s actions flow at least in part from a need to show up her neighbors and keep up appearances, and she often stoops to pettiness.
I’ve read a couple of reviews that criticized the familiarity of the setting and themes of this novel, but I think the reviewers missed the point. Sure, this book isn’t perfect–Biswas’s tone is a bit uneven, and she sometimes sounds wildly academic (reading “Deracinated by Mr and Mrs Brown’s adoption of him, Amolik, on the cusp of manhood, felt a part of his identity had been appropriated…” pulled me right out of the narrative). But Amolik’s struggle is still being played out all over India, and there’s a disturbing paucity of coverage of non-sensational news from rural areas by the country’s mainstream media. We need stories like The Red Road, stories that look beyond reflecting and legitimising the concerns of the popular mass of book buyers. In the final analysis, Biswas gives us the imperative to remember events that are conveniently forgotten, and to recall voices that are easily silenced.
The Red Road by Tina Biswas
Zubaan Books, 2011
Genre: Literary fiction