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.
My parents began their married life in Siliguri, an unremarkable small town that neither had previously visited. From there, Naxalbari seemed further away than it had in Calcutta, where they had met as students. It was only when my father became increasingly ambitious to engage in some 'foreign' travel that a curiosity-tinged fear began to gather in my mother. It was to Dhulabari, a dusty village-town in Nepal an hour and a half by bus from Siliguri, that my father often escaped with his friends. As we would discover later, Dhulabari was a smuggler's paradise. Full of cameras, video players, televisions, crockery, geysers, fancy 'fairy lights', hair dryers and candies in the strangest colours and shapes – the town was a veritable Disneyland for my young father's once-socialist eyes.
To get to that bari ('house' in Bangla and Rajbanshi), there was another my father had to cross. That was Naxalbari; and because my mother spent afternoons worrying about father's return, it became the equivalent of a house of horrors. When we asked her for a story about the place, all she would say was, 'You're too young to understand.' It was only after we had travelled through most of the rest of India that, one day in 1986, my mother expressed the desire to visit Naxalbari. My father's first reaction was to laugh. 'It's like visiting Ayodhya now,' he said. 'You want to see Ram or at least Ram rajya there, but instead all you see is a civilisation of dust!' But my mother was insistent. And so, one winter day we travelled to Naxalbari. It was to be a holiday, even a picnic, and in preparation the smell of oranges filled our house.
A car was hired – a white Ambassador, a luxury in those dark socialist times – and my father played navigator, a moustachioed Columbus taking his family along to retrace his original trail. But what was to be discovered was not a continent or country, but a village. Who went to a village for a curiosity picnic? This was before the advent of satellite television in India; before communism became a piece of history, a brick in the broken Berlin Wall; before tourism came to mean more than visits to historical sites, hill stations and sea towns. And so my brother and I dressed in our best picnic clothes and carried badminton racquets to the picnic-village.
From that, our first trip to Naxalbari, my mother returned disappointed. In fact, the inability of the village to measure up to what she had expected to be an exhibition of Maoist philosophy – or at least a 'Naxal' way of life, whatever that might have been –made her request her husband to go to another country, at least temporarily. And so our father led us over a river – the Mechi – and we crossed into Nepal where, after we had begun to tire from the sameness of staring at the tea bushes along the roadsides, we finally reached Dhulabari.
It was indeed a long journey, though longer in the space that separates ideologies than in miles. Once arrived, my mother went on something of a binge, buying tiny statues of the pot-bellied Laughing Buddha, a hair dryer and White Rabbit candies for us kids. Later, as we left Naxalbari to our left (it could not have been any other direction, perhaps) and headed home, my father joked that perhaps my mother would not be disappointed the next time we passed through the fields that had given birth to the bloody revolution. 'We might find statues of Charu Mazumdar, Jangal Santhal and Kanu Sanyal, all "made in China"!' he joked. But could we have toys or statues of the living, my mother wondered – for Kanu Sanyal, the man who had mobilised tea plantation workers and sharecroppers into the mutiny, was at that time still alive, the last of the Maoist Trinity.
Decades later – June 2009, in fact – her question came to my mind during another trip to Naxalbari. This time I was with Ian Almond, an American professor and committed Indophile who had specifically noted that visiting the village was one of his ambitions while on vacation in India. While doing just that, Ian insisted on leaving what is today the small town of Naxalbari for the smelly, abandoned rurality of the nearby area known as Prasadjote. If a city has a suburb, what does one call the neighbourhood of a village? For that was what Prasadjote was – it had the pride of the tags of history, but without its aura. Death had given it a surname – 11 people had died in a police firing once, in May 1967, and the names of the martyrs were inscribed on a memorial column.
As Ian looked closely at the names of the dead, I wondered whether there was any other village, in Bengal and beyond, with such a memorial column. Certainly among all the villages I had ever visited, I had never encountered any such paraphernalia of historicising. And what was it about this piece of ordinary architecture that made me sceptical about calling Naxalbari a 'village'? Are villages not expected to have memorials to their dead? A little later, after photographs had been taken, we held hankies and shirtsleeves to our nose (the village sewer flowed into a stream nearby) and took turns posing in front of four statues: Lenin and Stalin, side by side, and to their left (again, it could have only been left), Mao and, further left, like a distant relative, the rebuilt statue of the Naxalite movement's chief ideologue, Charu Mazumdar. Standing there, I could not help feeling that these statues seemed to take away from Naxalbari's 'villagehood' – but why? Could villages not have statues? Why are villages, in the popular imagination, ahistorical creatures, rivers of sameness, ceaseless and unchanging, unwieldy clogs of consciousness not fit enough to be cast and memorialised into statues?
It is telling that the Maoist uprising of the late 1960s began in a village. Forty years later, we find a different kind of rebellion, a village's protest against forced urbanity – Nandigram, also in Bengal. How much Maoist support remains in these villages is a question no one seems willing to answer. Today, Naxalbari has too few things to register much in a visitor's consciousness. The schools' names indicate an odd proclivity towards the Bible – Thomas Memorial High School, Seventh Day Adventist English School. The Central Bank of India instructs everyone to Build a Better Life Around Us. And the prettiest shop is called Kalpana Electricals – kalpana, imagination, which is what one requires to conjure up an image of what this place must have looked like during the 1960s.
Finally, though, there is another school, Nandaprasad High School – an old building, coloured in rust, with a small sign indicating Estd. in 1943. Ah, at last, the comfort of discovering something older than the revolution! For Naxalbari today wears a sheen of newness in its shops, freshly laid-out roads, streetlamps and the parted hair of its residents. A friend who teaches there found out that the school was named after a zamindar who had donated land for its construction. I have heard other stories about the village, too – about Kanu Sanyal's lantern, rumours about his suicide, and the favourite food of the Naxalite leaders (dried-fish curry). I have also created some stories about the village myself. Balram, a character in a novel that I wrote, comes from Nepal to India via Naxalbari. The Naxalbari of that story is a real village, shorn of the glamour of blood, a place that, after a few kilometres, gives way to two mini-villages themselves – Stalin-nagar and Lenin-pur.
I do not know why I have always found the realness, the lived dailiness of Naxalbari, difficult to relate to the uprising. After all, it should not be so difficult – these incidents were just a few decades ago, and their ramifications are still here for all to see. I wonder what it is about the village that disturbs me. Is it a city dweller's discomfort with the 'fame' of an unremarkable village? Or is it because I have always tried too hard to look for metaphors where there are none? In college, Charu Mazumdar's son was our English professor. An excellent classroom teacher, he also kept open house; it was from his personal library that I first read The Prison Notebooks by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Was it the son's scholarship in Marxism, among other things, that made me look for totems when I passed through Naxalbari?
Frontier towns are strange creatures, especially in cinema and literature. Naxalite poetry was coded by revolution, blood, death, injustice, violence, weapons, even the sickle in the emblem. But to date, I had yet to encounter a single remarkable poem about the village itself. This was odd given how rare it was to find a Bengali poet who had not written at least one good poem about a generic village. Most poetic voices tend to lapse into ellipsis. Bithi Chattopadhyay's poem 'Aami jodi shaat-er kobi hotam' (If I'd been a poet in the Sixties) talks about being a poet in that iconic decade, about translating the smell of revolution into words, 'teargas and burning buses on College Street' in Calcutta, bleeding nights, about being friends with the famous poets of the times (Sunil, Shankha, Shakti), about walking to Madhupur and Ranchi – and yet not Naxalbari. The village where it all started is not mentioned even once, not even as a hint to memory.
On the memorial column to the police-firing victims in Naxalbari, the two child martyrs are mentioned only as 'two children'. It is as if it became difficult for the inscriber to commit the names of the children to history, so that their anonymity increases the tragedy of their death. Similarly, is it easier to write poetry about an anonymous village, rather than about one that is a village only in name – but is still more famous than many cities around the world?
Missing in Naxalbari
creep into a nation's
weaponry of sounds,
out of insomniac
becomes a late
20th-century joke –
to rhyme with
'Singh is King'.
'Missed call': tring, tring.
For what is not lost
cannot be found.
'Missing' is synonym
for love's roll call,
gerund in a police diary,
smoke from chimneys;
bullet sting on a wall.
Death, shy neighbour,
is a 'hidden' camera.
It bends out from
the sky's balcony:
'I miss you'
on phones, letters,
in FIRs, sighs;
with corpse fleas,
montage of din.
to go missing
a word enters
~ Sumana Roy ~ Sumana Roy teaches at the Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College.