Review: The Hills are Burning by Anirban Bhattacharyya
The troubles in the hills of West Bengal in the 1980s and the Gorkhaland agitation there form the backdrop of this coming-of-age tale
Set largely in Kalimpong in the 1980s, The Hills are Burning is centred on the life of its protagonist Tukai or Tirthankar Chatterjee, a student of Class 11, who has, following his father’s transfer, moved from Kolkata to the Darjeeling hills. It is a tense time rife with everyday violence and instability. The Gorkhaland agitation was demanding a separate state for the Gorkhas, who have a distinct cultural and linguistic identity. The conflict between Gorkhas and Bengalis from the plains has already turned bloody and Tukai’s father is nervous about moving his family to an area that’s unsafe for them on account of their ethnicity.
However, despite the unstable political climate, the boy makes many genuine friends at his boarding school, The Residency. His close circle that includes Roshan, Tashi, Norong, Aditi and Sachita are free of the enmity that’s playing out in the streets.
But the strife-ridden adult world has a habit of impinging on the happiness of young people. Tukai makes friends with Aditi whom he meets when he accompanies his father Shibshankar Chatterjee to his colleague Bhimbahadur Gurung’s home. The latter does not approve of his daughter’s budding romance with the “Bengali boy”. To complicate matters, Bhimbahadur reports to the senior Chatterjee at work, something that irks him. Unsurprisingly, he devotes himself to the task of keeping Aditi and Tukai apart, which has an emotional impact on both.
Even as killings, violence, shutdowns and protests are rampant outside the walls of The Residency, life inside is all about forming meaningful friendships and discovering love. A world in itself, the school is where Tukai learns how to take decisions on his own and bear the consequences. The school holds him in thrall and he even prefers it to returning with his parents to Calcutta.
Anirban Bhattacharyya presents both sides of the Gorkhaland agitation and the conflict in the hills of West Bengal. Most importantly, his novel doesn’t shy away from showing how common people suffer in times of instability.
It also deals sensitively with the themes of identity and belonging. The dichotomy between the outsider and the local and the question of how far back in history to go to establish the authenticity of ethnic identity is personified in the character of Ellen, Norong’s grandmother. Part Chinese and part Nepalese, and deeply attached to her land, Ellen herself was once accused of being an outsider. Having lived through the many ups and downs of Kalimpong, from the Indo-China War in 1962 to the Gorkhaland agitation, she introduces Tukai to its diverse history when she shows him the Mela Ground. Once the bustling epicenter of trade for many countries, the same ground transforms into a place of chaos and terror later in the novel. Even as the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) and its military wing, the Gorkha Volunteer Corps (GVC) become aggressive in their demand for a separate state, the presence of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) becomes more prominent in the area. Inevitably, the GNLF and the CRPF collide and the terror and levels of suspicion in the hills rise to such an extent that life becomes harrowing as ordinary citizens become targets.
Ellen’s house is burnt down and the family is left homeless and destitute. Another character, Tukai’s friend Roshan’s cousin Pawan, who hoarded weapons for the Gorkhaland agitation, is killed by the CRPF.
The novel’s cast of characters is heterogeneous. Some differ in their ideological stances and political affiliations; others try their best to remain neutral but fail to do so. The author effectively uses literary devices such as foreshadowing to keep readers on the edge. The sensitive portrayal of young people caught at a vulnerable time in their lives that play out against a violent backdrop also makes this a thought provoking read.
Saleem Rashid Shah is an independent book critic. He lives in New Delhi.