When a teenager sees red
In the opening paragraph of Guns On My Red Earth, its protagonist, 14-year-old Shanto, walks through Jhitka forest in Jangalmahal, West Bengal. He is on his way to ‘Bon Ghar’, which is code for the village of Bhimpur, to gather information for the Maoist group he works in. But first, he must find Chhoto, the squirrel, on the trident-shaped tree in the forest, and give him the peanuts he is hiding for him.
That, in a few words, is really what Shanto’s life is all about — childhood and innocence that must be put to test by the fear of the police, the Maoist group’s often bloody agenda, and Shanto’s own conscience. Guns On My Red Earth is Shanto’s story as he tries to escape one life after another but often lands up where he started out.
Shanto is one of the youngest in the Maoist group and will soon learn how to use arms and kill. His life before he joined the Maoists is violent too, although it was violence of another kind — constant hunger and abject poverty are part of life and there is no access to education or affection. Shanto’s parents (also Maoists) leave him behind with his aunt and uncle who barely have the means or the patience to raise him. Food is the sole reason Shanto joins the Maoists, and he detests the life they lead thanks to the government’s attitude and police injustice. However, as time passes, Shanto finds himself questioning the Maoists’ violence, too, and decides to flee. Freedom for Shanto comes at a price — there’s always the danger of being found out by his own comrades. If not, there is always the fear of the police catching up with Shanto. He does find solace in a kindered spirit along the way, but can it last?
Guns On My Red Earth comes at a time when our young adult (YA) literature bookshelves are still hungover from fantasy and romance (read Harry Potter and Twilight). It is heartening to pick up a book which acknowledges that the YA segment, like any other, has questions about a world which may be distant from theirs but needs attention and dialogue. Guns On My Red Earth is poignant; it deftly gets into Shanto’s mind and helps the reader see all the contradictions inside. It alludes to violence which is part of his life, but doesn’t get gory. Instead, it is through Shanto’s eyes that we feel the intensity of the incidents and their aftermath. The book is a pacy read, which is another plus while writing for young adults. What it lacks in places is details of characters and backstories, which may have given the narrative more nuance. At times, it is difficult to feel for anyone apart from Shanto, and it would have been nice to be able to root for more than one layered character.
What the book does best, however, is introduce a young reader to the Maoist issue through uncomplicated prose. There is great detail there, and all possible sides. The book’s theme is telling in more ways than one. It rubbishes the idea that these things happen to ‘other’ teenagers living in ‘different’ worlds and brings to fore the fact that it is happening here, right now, and is just as real as the chick lit on a young adult’s shelf. And that YA readers want to know more about their distant counterparts. As Sengupta says in an earlier conversation, “There are hundreds of young boys like Shanto. Their stories are fascinating, moving and distressing. It will touch young adults because it is rooted in reality. If you travel any day to Lalgarh or Latehar, you are likely to find someone like him.”