Naming Naxalbari

How a village became the name of a fear.

During the 1970s, just after Ramesh Sippy's famous production Sholay was released, fear began to take on a new name for children across the Subcontinent – the name of a man. The surname carried an air of authority, masculinity and strength, while the first name was vaguely funny, even meaningless: Gabbar Singh, the film's iconic bandit chief. For adults a few years earlier, fear had already begun to acquire another name, one as obscure as 'Gabbar'. This was the name of a tiny speck of a village in north Bengal, a region hazy in the national consciousness: Naxalbari.

As drugs were to parenting for my parents' generation and an uncensored Internet is for those raising children today, Naxalbari was the indefinable fear for parents two generations back. My grandparents, villagers in Bengal's Dinajpur district, did not want to send my father to Presidency College in Calcutta for fear that he would graduate as a 'Naxal'. My father avoided becoming one, though many of his friends went missing only to return years later with stumps for hands and blotches of darkness in what should have been happy post-graduation memories.

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Himal Southasian