Interview | With his debut novel that mirrors the times, Tathagata Bhattacharya wants readers to learn from history and not repeat it

A melange of mesmerising characters and figures from the past populate the world of ‘General Firebrand and His Red Atlas’

Updated - March 16, 2024 11:54 am IST

Published - March 15, 2024 01:55 pm IST

Author Tathagata Bhattacharya is a journalist and sustainability expert.

Author Tathagata Bhattacharya is a journalist and sustainability expert. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

Except for a handful of rich people, the residents of Tantilash are no longer excited about the Lynch Games. Madame President Nida Dodi cracks down on farmers and dissenters alike as she feels threatened by the increasing influence of the People’s Resistance Committee under the leadership of General Firebrand, who, despite meagre resources, is fighting her totalitarian regime. A melange of such mesmerising characters, along with figures from the past, populate the world of journalist and sustainability expert Tathagata Bhattacharya’s refreshing, witty debut novel General Firebrand and His Red Atlas (Seagull Books). In a Zoom interview, he talks about the novel’s world-building, our uncertain reality and the need to look into the past. Edited excerpts:

What led to the genesis of this novel?

It’s difficult to answer. But let me tell you that I lost my parents and grandmother in quick succession — in three years. Call it grief or whatever, I went through a period of insecurity. I felt that everyone I knew as a part of the family was leaving me. It was at that point that I started writing this book, and finished it in less than two months like a possessed being.

Interview with author Tathagata Bhattacharya on his new book General Firebrand and his Red Atlas

Also, as writers are a product of their time, I was wondering how the country I grew up in had so radically transformed in a matter of 10 or 12 years. There are many things which, as students then, we probably couldn’t have believed would be possible today, but those have become the norm. Such things have also played a role in shaping the novel.

What books, music or other resources did you rely on to create the intricate world of the novel?

Ever since a teenager, I’ve been interested in the history of wars. In my Calcutta house, there are entire almirahs dedicated to warfare history, starting from 500 BCE to the modern era. Peaceniks and liberals don’t realise that today’s world is largely shaped by wars. The World Wide Web (WWW) is a product of military research. Penicillin, too.

The World War II generals mentioned in the book, I’ve read their memoirs — all of them. So, books helped, but I wasn’t listening to any music as I wasn’t in that frame of mind. In fact, the novel itself became a kind of redemption song. And as I felt everything was coming down crashing on me, it became a kind of an umbrella, a shelter.

Your principal characters Nida Dodi and General Firebrand are quite eccentric. Also, in my view, there’s a homoerotic tension between El Comandante (aka Kapo) and Firebrand. Your thoughts?

I deliberately chose the character of Madame President to break away from stereotypes because whenever you think of an autocratic figure, you think of a man. But then, there’s this strange platonic affair she has with a man, whom everyone would call a loser. She looks forward to their meeting — she dresses up and cooks — every 90 days. This wasn’t done to “humanise” her but to add a layer of complexity to her character. The same is the case with Firebrand. Though a very competent military commander, he’s a flawed person. Can’t keep his family in order; unsocial, especially with women; not good at listening; has temper issues; drinks too much. He knows he’s flawed, but he’s very comical, too. With Kapo and Firebrand, I didn’t want to convey any homoeroticism but friendship and camaraderie.

Why invoke figures from the past?

You study history to not repeat the mistakes you made in the past. Unfortunately, such mistakes are being made. When the Roman Empire was disintegrating, it was trying to grasp it all; it was trying to project its strength at its zenith because it knew it was falling. That’s what’s happening today. A few people are convinced about the supremacy of their ethnic, racial, or religious identity. The irony is that no one is seeing that this is exactly what happened in the past. Which is why WW II was a watershed moment in history unlike WW I because it showed what the world hadn’t seen earlier — targeted ethnic cleansing.

I’ve visited concentration camps and war museums. There, I’ve seen what human beings are capable of. And remember, they were no barbarians. They were very sophisticated people, who read [Otto von] Bismarck’s works; listened to [George Frideric] Handel and [Franz] Schubert. And after doing that, they turned the gas valve in the concentration camp and killed children. They did it because they believed in what they were doing. A kind of rerun of the same is happening today. In our country, too, there’s a conscious attempt to brand a few people as second-class citizens. So, I thought a reminder of things was very essential, especially in the times we live in.

The interviewer is a Delhi-based queer writer and freelance journalist.

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