In 1967, the boys begin hearing about Naxalbari on the radio and in the newspaper. One of a string of villages in the Darjeeling District, nearly four hundred miles from Calcutta, it is a place inhabited mostly by tribal peasants who have for generations been living under a feudal system: being manipulated by wealthy landowners, preyed upon by moneylenders, evicted from their land, and denied profits from crops they’ve grown.
The conflict in Naxalbari is a struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors. As Subhash and Udayan take in the news about this small town, they begin to understand that things are changing—their countrymen are not going to take terrible conditions lying down any longer.
In March of 1967, a sharecropper in Naxalbari ploughs land from which he has been illegally evited, and his landlord sends “thugs” to beat him. The police hear of the incident, but refuse to intervene, and as a result sharecroppers across the region begin retaliating, burning deeds and records and forcibly occupying land. Though this is not the first instance of peasant revolts in the district, the peasants have now adopted militant tactics. They are armed with primitive weapons, carry red flags, and can be heard shouting “Long live Mao Tse-tung.”
As the conflict in Naxalbari gains momentum, the revolting peasants begin using Communist language, imagery, and ideology in support of their struggle. The influence of such ideology—rooted in anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and the dismantling of the landowning classes—will take hold of much more than just Naxalbari in the coming years.
Two Bengali communists, Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal, are the movement’s primary organizers. These men, younger than most of the communist leadership in India, are dissidents of the CPI(M) and see the older generations as out of touch. Sanyal is a true radical—raised wealthy in an upper-echelon caste, Sanyal now refuses to own property and devotes his life to the rural poor. The Calcutta government has attempted to enlist Sanyal’s help in getting the peasants to surrender, but he backed out of negotiations at the last minute. As tensions have escalated, many peasants have been killed.
The CPI(M) is so effective in large part because it rejects outdated ideology and its leaders are wholly devoted to the ideals they espouse. Though there has been large-scale violence throughout the countryside, the movement is still gathering momentum and support from those frustrated with old-guard politics and oppressive class issues.
Subhash and Udayan often stay up late, listening to the radio and discussing what is happening in Naxalbari. Udayan supports the peasant rebellion, but Subhash has reservations, feeling that the peasants’ primitive weapons will do no good against the might of the state. Udayan, though, admires the peasants for fighting back through any means possible. Udayan blames the United Front, the left-wing government coalition in charge of West Bengal, for not backing the rebellion despite its promises of rights for workers and peasants and its communist sympathies.
As the brothers process the news coming out of Naxalbari, they react to it in accordance with their personalities. Subhash is skeptical both of the violence he’s hearing about and the efficacy of revolutionary politics—Udayan, though, believes the peasants should keep trying, blazing a trail despite lack of governmental support.
Over the summer, the conflict worsens, and there are demonstrations in support of the Naxalbari peasants at both Subhash and Udayan’s colleges. The West Bengal government authorizes a raid of Naxalbari peasants’ houses, and many insurgents are captured as a result. The rebellion is quashed, and when news of its defeat reaches Udayan and Subhash via their radio, Udayan is visibly upset. He quotes a Chinese newspaper which recently predicted that the “spark in Darjeeling will start a prairie fire and will certainly set the vast expanses of India ablaze.”
In this scene Udayan demonstrates, for the first time, his deep emotional connection to what the peasants there are going through. The newspaper quotation Udayan relays to Subhash is a violent one, but this seems to make Udayan feel hopeful rather than wary or frightened—he thinks that India needs to be “set on fire” in order to change.
By the fall, Sanyal and Majumdar have gone into hiding. Indian journalists are reprinting articles from Chinese Communist magazines. Udayan shows the articles to his father, who dismisses their rhetoric. He has already lived through change in India, he says; he foretells that the peasants will not rebel again, and the United Front will remain in power. Udayan criticizes his father for not taking a stand, but Subhash knows that their father is a government employee—there are rules about what he can say and do, and he cannot join any party or union. Subhash knows that all their lives, their father has been responsible for their sake, but Udayan does not see things this way.
Once again, Subhash’s perspective is the more tempered one. He is able to see that his and Udayan’s father has made sacrifices to keep them safe, but Udayan is so wrapped up in revolutionary rhetoric that he cannot see things the way Subhash can. Udayan wants radical politics now, and cannot see how, from his father’s perspective, in the wake of turmoil such as the fallout of Partition, upholding even an imperfect status quo is preferable to more violence.
Subhash begins finding communist texts, including Mao’s Little Red Book, among Udayan’s things. One afternoon, on a study break, Subhash picks up a book of essays by Majumdar, and later asks Udayan whether he really believes Majumdar’s calls for India’s communists to follow China’s example—and use civil war as a tactic of seizing power—can really work. Udayan tells Subhash these methods have already worked in China. Subhash and Udayan are on their way to play soccer, and as they pass the Tolly Club, Udayan calls it an “affront.” Subhash remembers breaking in as a boy, and attempts to remind Udayan of these memories, but Udayan replies only that “golf [is] the pastime of the comprador bourgeoisie” and points out that after the Cuban revolution, “getting rid of the golf courses was one of the first things Castro had done.”
In this passage, Subhash is coming to realize just how radical his brother has become. Once, Udayan wanted the chance to get into the Tolly Club so badly that he led Subhash on a mission to sneak in—now, he is only to see it only as a bastion of class warfare, inequality, and corruption. Udayan has become so swept up in the rhetoric of his Communist idols that he no longer has any appreciation for anything that goes even remotely against their ideology.