By early 1968, the United Front government has collapsed and direct rule by the Central Government has been imposed. Students all over West Bengal are protesting their insufficient educations—which teach the young “to ignore the needs of the common people”—by boycotting exams, tearing up diplomas, and delivering incendiary speeches during convocations and graduations.
Revolution has come to West Bengal in earnest, as forward-thinking citizens have exposed the ways in which the infrastructures around them are not meeting their needs. These protests reveal the anger simmering below the surface of West Bengal and establish a volatile atmosphere.
Despite this climate, Udayan and Subhash both begin their postgraduate studies. Subhash continues on at Jadavpur, while Udayan transfers to Calcutta University. Udayan’s schedule becomes erratic, and he frequently misses dinner. Subhash knows that the Naxalbari movement is spreading throughout India, and suspects that his brother is involved, but does not discuss these matters with their parents.
In the midst of the unrest in West Bengal, Subhash doubles down on his studies—but cannot account for what his brother is up to. Subhash, true to his nature, does not want to raise suspicion or rock the boat where Udayan is concerned, and so keeps his fears to himself.
One evening, Udayan invites Subhash to a meeting in North Calcutta. In the small room, students are gathered together to engage in a study-session-like meeting at which the group must prove their familiarity with Mao’s tenets and Chinese history. Communist newspapers are distributed, and from reading them Subhash learns that the peasant rebels are still active in Naxalbari. They are even having some success, and landowners are fleeing after a spate of landowning families have been burned and decapitated. Sinha, the leader of the meeting, tells the room that the CPI(M) is nothing but “lackeys of the United States,” and urges the creation of a new party to reflect their group’s radical views. Though Subhash is skeptical, Udayan hangs on every word.
Subhash’s first foray into radical politics is of course only at Udayan’s behest. Subhash is skeptical throughout the meeting, but when he sees how invested Udayan is in everything Sinha is saying, he understands that the gulf between himself and his brother has widened significantly. Subhash is neutral and uninterested in the violent, radical overthrow of the status quo—he is a natural introvert and is disinclined to participate in any activities that could get him into trouble.
Later that week, beneath the brothers’ bed, Subhash finds a can of red paint along with a folded piece of paper on which is written a list of slogans glorifying Mao and the uprising in Naxalbari. One night, when Udayan comes home late, Subhash asks if he has been out painting slogans. Udayan replies that the “ruling class” puts their propaganda everywhere, and so he and his group should be able to influence people, too. Udayan then invites Subhash to come help him paint the following evening.
Subhash is realizing, bit by bit, the true extent of his brother’s involvement in the burgeoning revolutionary movement which has swept Calcutta. Understanding that Udayan is not just ideologically aligned with this movement, but is putting his own safety at risk in order to carry out acts on their behalf, shakes Subhash more than a little.
The next night, Subhash again finds himself in the position of lookout as Udayan paints the slogan “Long live Naxalbari” in English on a wall. Subhash is not afraid of being caught, and remembers, in contrast, how terrified he was back when they scaled the wall of the Tolly Club. After the vandalism is finished, Udayan is elated and excited, but Subhash is angry with himself for going along with it. He knows he only followed Udayan because he is afraid that if he resists Udayan, the two will “cease to be brothers.”
Subhash goes along on this mission only half-willingly and is flooded with memories of similar escapades they undertook as boys. Subhash has always felt steamrolled by Udayan’s influence, afraid of denying his brother and damaging their close bond. Subhash is angry with his own spinelessness, and with Udayan for taking advantage of it for all these years.
After finishing school, Udayan finds a job teaching science at a high school near Tollygunge, while Subhash applies to Ph.D. programs in the United States, where he can continue his research on the environment. Udayan insists he cannot walk away from what is happening in India and warns Subhash that leaving is selfish. Subhash tells Udayan that in engaging with radicals, he is endangering their family. Udayan then begs Subhash not to leave. Subhash, however, does not hear the request as one made out of love, but rather as a command—“another exhortation to do as Udayan did.”
For so much of his life, Subhash has gone along with what his brother has wanted—now that Subhash is ready to carve his own path, his brother is trying once again to steer him in a certain direction. Subhash is sick of this treatment, and it is perhaps because of his frustration that he doubles down on his resolve to travel to America and leave Udayan—and the unrest of Calcutta—behind.
It is Udayan, however, who goes away before Subhash, claiming he is traveling with friends. A month later, Udayan returns thin and bearded, with a noticeable tremor. He is diagnosed with an overactive thyroid gland and placed on medication. After Udayan recovers, things mostly go back to normal—but Subhash can tell that “some part of Udayan [is] elsewhere.” Something, Subhash realizes, has subdued and preoccupied his brother.
Udayan returns to Calcutta noticeably changed. This is the beginning of the novel’s toying with the concept of presence in absence, and of absence despite presence. Udayan has returned—but just how much of him has come back is something Subhash and his family must try to figure out.
On April 22, 1969—Lenin’s birthday—a third communist party launches in Calcutta. They call themselves Naxalites. Majumdar and Sanyal are at its head—Sanyal is the “party chairman.” Sanyal gives a speech, christening the party the Communist Party of India, Marxist-Leninist—the CPI(ML.) He proclaims that the party’s chief task will be to organize the peasantry against the Indian state, using guerrilla warfare as its main tactic. Sanyal predicts that by the year 2000, “the people of the whole world will be liberated from all kinds of exploitation,” and communism will be celebrating a great victory.
The creation of this splinter party is a celebrated occasion for many—but Lahiri strategically employs her reader’s position in time to show how this cause, however valiant, is already doomed. Of course, by the year 2000—already well in the past by the time of the book’s publication—the world’s people were not liberated from all of their suffering, and communism is not the world’s dominant political model.
The next day, the newspapers feature articles about the gathering, and photos of Sanyal and his followers. Subhash looks through them, seeing portraits of a city he no longer feels a part of. Already, he is preparing to leave Tollygunge behind. He knows that his brother was at the rally and feels slightly sad that Udayan did not invite him to come along. Subhash feels as if the two of them have already parted.
Subhash is so disconnected from what is happening in Calcutta—party through his own aloofness, but partly because he has chosen, upon seeing Udayan’s intense involvement, to keep himself removed. Though physically still present in Tollygunge, Subhash already emotionally absent from his hometown.