West Bengal had failed, however, because its people were too literate. Too many ideas, too many opinions, too many cavils and quibbles all around. The curse of the intellectual: all words, no action. Indeed, no action because of the sheer volume of words, which bore down on anything that even looked like alacrity.
Tina Biswas is not one to mince her words. Only a few pages into her latest work, The Antagonists, she engulfs the reader into the hard-hitting political situation in the state of West Bengal. Borrowing a touch of the brutal-but-effective storytelling of one of her favourites, VS Naipaul, it is not for her to be concerned about whether her writing is kind or not. She maintains that 'it's okay to stab a reader with words, and really make them feel something'.
There are moments of unconstrained frankness as well, especially when she writes about Devi, the chief minister of the state in the book, modelled on one of West Bengal’s most prominent political figures. One of the two epigraphs in The Antagonists is a line by Philip Roth: ‘The candor stopped just where it should have begun'. Roth’s influence on her work results in unfiltered honesty, an ‘unafraid and unfettered frankness'.
On the morning of 9 December, 2011, nearly a hundred people lost their lives in a fire set off by a short circuit at the Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI) Hospital in Dhakuria in West Bengal. Subsequently, the license of the posh seven-storey medical centre was revoked, lawsuits were filed, and those responsible came under scrutiny. Today, eight years later, some of the victims' families still await justice. Biswas’ novel, based on this tragedy, takes off in the aftermath of the incident as the hospital’s board tries to instate some damage control while the newly appointed political leader vows to hold the culprits accountable.
A graduate in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) from the University of Oxford, Biswas based her second novel, The Red Road, on the rebellions and unrest caused by Naxalite uprisings in the 70s; she concluded that story with the Left Front government coming to power in the state.
The Antagonists was conceived a year after the AMRI tragedy — a year after the Left Front was ousted by the Trinamool Congress, making it, according to the author, “prescient” in predicting the situation in West Bengal. Her writing was underway when the Indian National Congress was in power, but ended when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over the reins, “taking the place of the Left Front as Trinamool’s arch-enemy".
In order to write this book, Biswas said, “I simply thought: let’s see what West Bengal looks like now after this massive change.” Added to this are the fire at AMRI and the cases stuck in courts. The plot of the story is fueled further by the author’s question: “What if the chairman of the hospital, who is accused of being a murderer by the chief minister, is actually innocent?"
Biswas was raised in England. She spent her childhood in a small town in Yorkshire and currently resides in London. Several visits to India throughout her life changed what she thought of the country and its politics. However, she points out that it is not the country, but the commonalities of socio-economic status, education level, and parental background that shape a person’s politics.
When asked about her perception of India, removed as she was from its everyday struggles, she responds with, “What are 'everyday struggles'? Because I’m pretty sure not everyone in India has the same 'everyday struggles'. Well, apart from the very superficial physical stuff, like dealing with monsoon rains.”
Her writing tends towards the irreverent, she concedes, and her humour is more British than Indian in its dryness, but in spirit, she is not divided or caught between two worlds. “I’m a whole fused person, formed and influenced by many things, not just my ethnicity and the country I grew up in,” she says.
The Antagonists is the story of two characters, Devi and Anil Thakur. Anil is the advisor to the chairman of the hospital, Sachin Lohia. Anil Thakur, like Biswas, is a PPE graduate from Oxford and a bright man, unlike Lohia's other advisors. Biswas shapes the narrative of her protagonists in a manner similar to her strong-minded analysis of the self, laying bare their ‘fundamental nature'.
She also bases Devi’s conversations and her private thoughts on vociferous and passionate public figures, carving the personal from real-life incidents. “If someone, through real life incidents, shows themselves to be tenacious, determined, idealistic and considerate on one hand, and then mercurial, vindictive, manipulative and rude on the other, it is then possible to construct the kind of background and childhood which might result in that kind of personality,” she says, “Perhaps not a stable, loving, supportive upbringing, in my mind.”
“And once you have coloured in the background, you can then imagine the person in their private space.”
In her narrative, Biswas has also incorporated a much-discussed incident, elucidating Devi’s outburst in a news studio where she accuses many of those gathered of being Maoists and walks out in the middle of an interview. Without shrouding her characters in a cloak of empathy, she explains, "Before, if a journalist asked a pertinent question which a politician didn’t like, a politician could try and deflect or give a vague answer, but they would never storm off — because it would reflect badly on them, and it would be unstatesmanlike."
"Well, there’s no concern about that anymore, is there!"
“The fourth estate is completely under siege at the moment,” she adds, “There has been a breakdown in norms between politicians and journalists.” Quoting Thomas Jefferson, Biswas goes on, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Anil is nothing like what the author has seen of Indians graduating from Oxbridge or other Ivy League colleges, who choose to stay back in the UK or US after school. Biswas’ protagonist returns to Kolkata, and instead of leading a “very cushy life”, he decides to “get involved in the cut and thrust of it all".
The author has previously written a strong, witty commentary of society and its very many norms in her book, Dancing With The Two-Headed Tigress. She has explored politics in the two works that followed, and is currently engaged in writing a story about a marriage. "Writing is a journey, you just have to see where it takes you,” she said, “The process is not quite as rational as you might think it is, it’s almost a bit mystical!”
Tina Biswas' The Antagonists is published by Fingerprint!
Listen to Tina Biswas read this excerpt from her novel, The Antagonists
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Updated Date: Mar 28, 2019 12:26:12 IST