Editor’s Comment. A novel rooted in our not-so-distant past, that captures the vulnerabilities of youth and friendships, while raising provocative questions that don’t leave you.
Set against the backdrop of the Gorkhaland agitations that took place in and around West Bengal in the late 80s, The Hills Are Burning, is noted TV producer and author Anirban Bhattacharyya’s fourth book.
It is a gut-wrenching and deeply moving account of the violence that rained down upon the hills of Kalimpong as the region shook under the political consequences of the Gorkhaland Movement. In 1980, Subhash Ghisingh raised the demand for the creation of a state called Gorkhaland to be carved out of the Darjeeling hills and areas of Dooars and Siliguri terai, contiguous to Darjeeling, for Nepali-speaking Indians residing within India.
Based on true events, The Hills Are Burning employs the troupe of an omniscient narrator, which grants the author the aesthetic latitude to make readers intimately witness the social upheaval wrought by the movement, through the eyes and experiences of three friends, Tukai, Norong, and Roshan, as they move through the trials of teenage friendships, enmities and love, even as the insurgency boils over into brutal violence.
The book opens by stating that “Freedom comes at price.” And as we read, we understand the true cost that has to be paid for freedom, and how it is always the innocent, and disempowered who have to bear it.
Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, a statesman and a veteran, once remarked, “Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
And it is this humanity that burns along with the Hills, when innocent people are dragged out of their homes and shot at, or beheaded. Men, women, children, Bengali, Nepali, Lepcha, Gorkha, no one is spared from this fire that knows naught else but consumption.
The Hills Are Burning tells the stories of many locals residing in Kalimpong. Be it the branch head Abhishek Pradhan and his family, or Norong and his family, or even Roshan’s tribe. Be it the local shop owners, the hawkers, or even the old lady who survives on the streets.
As I read these stories and experienced their struggles, I could not help but ask myself—how does one leave home? Our home is our sanctuary from the world. Where does one go when the sanctuary is under attack? Where is safety if not under one’s own roof? There are parts in the book where the reader is confronted with questions, such as,
“Did they know their lives would end today?”
“How could they kill a 13-year-old girl? What justice was this? What kind of law gave these people the right to shoot a child?”
“Why rape?” Why indeed!
Tukai (the primary protagonist) and his friends raise these questions as they witness the mindless atrocities of the insurgency. But we know there’s no answer. There has never been an answer. Doesn’t war raise twice as many questions as it answers? I believe so.
Amidst this revolution are these three boys. Tukai, who has moved from Calcutta (or ‘Cal’ as they say at the Residency) to Kalimpong with his family, and is trying to find his place in the new environment. Roshan, a local, is juggling between his protected life at school and the terrifying reality of life at home where death comes calling. Norong, a third generation Chinese-Lepcha, is shouldering the responsibility (and burden) of a long heritage.
Anirban Bhattacharyya takes the reader on a remarkably poignant, coming-of-age journey with these boys. A journey that is heart-breaking and heartwarming at the same time! A journey of longing, of love, of loss and life. The narrative transports us to the time of young love. The book made me look back at my own life. The author referring to youth as time when we are “desperate for love to blossom and yet shackled with fears”, resonated with me.
Or that, “A young heart is a fickle one. It has the insurmountable need to be validated, and the urge to create memories—and happier ones are preferred.”
One may argue that perhaps there is no place for love in a war-torn state. I beg to differ. I think a war-torn state is precisely the place for love. If not here, where else?
At the very end, as the story with its many threads, layers and characters comes together, the author leaves us with a thought that can only originate as life comes full circle – “In the end, life is all about the journey we take; we look back at our past to see how we have been shaped by it, as we always remain dreamers of a better tomorrow.”
I read somewhere that war does not decide who is right, only who is left. So, if we agree upon this truth, then this is what I am proposing—if we are the ones who are left, let us tell our stories. Through our words, let us keep those stories alive that could not find an end.
A story that originated decades ago in the author’s heart, and in the heart of the hills, in Kalimpong and her people, has now made a home in mine as well. As the curtain drops on this story, many others begin. And I move ever onward, knowing that I will forever carry this piece of the past in my heart. I want to thank Anirban for writing this book, for telling this story. This book is a glimpse of the past, a very real past, embellished here and there with the rare gemstones of fiction.
I strongly recommend this book to everyone! The narrative is extremely engaging, interactive and fast-paced. The prose is simple and impactful. One aspect that halts the flow of the narrative is the frequent citations and footnotes. However, in a novel that discusses true historical events, there is no other way around it. The silver lining here is that the descriptions are crisp and to the point without overloading the readers with facts and figures. The peppering of Bengali, Nepali and Hindi add a wondrous flavour of raw authenticity to the experience.
This is a chapter of ourhistory we may not be very aware of, but one we need to know. And what better way to understand the fire of war than through the fire of love gained and lost? The Hills Are Burning is a page-turner in the truest sense of the word.
Monica Singh is a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile. Her debut novel The Pause (September 2022) is available on Amazon paperback and Kindle. Her love of reading has led to her passion for writing. Her stories are a part of national and international anthologies. Monica lives in Pune, India, with her husband, Rahul, and her tomcat Loki.