A Conspiracy in Calcutta Book Review- a Revolutionary Road to Independence via Calcutta

Lesley Biswas’s "A Conspiracy in Calcutta" set in 1928-1929 pre-Independence India  begins in media res as Bithi finds her mother, Chabi facing blows from the police as they take part in a non-violent protest against the Simon Cripps Commission. But in an interesting authorial choice, instead of focusing on the Gandhian side of Chabi, the author chooses to take the story forward through the revolutionary road taken by Chabi’s son and Bithi’s brother, Bibhas who  is a follower of Subhas Chandra Bose.

The Storytelling

Bithi comes alive as a character, be it through the prickly ties she has with her Thakuma; her warm bond with her brother that papers over the resentment she feels at her grandma’s favouritism towards him; her observations about her mother’s silence at the constant jibes she faces from Thakuma; her closeness to her father, Nirmal addressed as Nilu by his mother and her awareness of the tension between her brother and him. The squabbles she has with Sulata over her growing friendship with Shiuli are a charming read. And as Bithi gets more involved in the goings-on of her brother, the lies and the secrets, the excitement and fear she feels, and the increasing tension with her mother who does not countenance violence as a means to any end are well brought out.

While her mother’s thoughts are made clear in the arguments Bithi has with her, one does wonder what she feels about her son’s affiliations to violence or her husband having to keep tabs on his own students. There is of course the presence of Thakuma who will not brook any criticism of her grandson. Yet, it’s a missing link that could have filled out the story.

Although the narrative starts off well in weaving Sulata’s and Bibhas’s stories together the strands begin to unravel as characters like Bibhas are rendered inactive and Rina Di fades out from the story. Hence, the ending seems a bit of a pell-mell rush. Yet, as mentioned below, it’s precisely this frenetic jaggedness that lends impetus to the story. So, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Why It Should Be Read

This is the only book in the “Songs of Freedom” series that I’ve read so far that manages to capture the frenzy and uncertainty of those times when going up against ruthless British police officers could mean not just imprisonment but torture as well. The hard labour, indifference, and inhumanity of the jailors are starkly brought out without being airbrushed for children, which is refreshing and welcome.

The heart of the story is about Bithi’s friendship with Sulata and how the latter’s marriage changes equations all around. It offers a glimpse into how little the mindset has changed and how much more needs to be done to prevent this pernicious practice, which has seen a spike in Covid times. At the same time, Bithi’s forthright stand offers hope that children can and do make a difference. Besides the major theme of child marriage, Biswas also makes mention of social reformers and their fight against sati, female infanticide, and the education of girls.

Given the times we live in where laws regarding sedition are under challenge, it’s a timely book that reminds us that these date from colonial times: ‘There’s a provision to arrest anyone thought to be a threat to the country’s safety and people can be kept locked up based on suspicion.’ It’s quite chilling to read lines such as these: ‘anyone could betray the revolutionaries, even children’ and the role of Nirmal spying on his students and having to make a decision regarding his own son makes for a poignant read.

The part that children played in the Independence struggle is also detailed where besides passing messages they were also taught self-defence, lathi and dagger play and even swimming and cycling in Tarun Sanghas and Chhatri Sanghas. It’s serious training that is a step up for Bithi where she must use bamboo sticks for lathi khela rather than the thin, neem branches she had used earlier. Bina Das, who made a blink-and-miss appearance in Nandita Basu’s graphic novel “The Piano” has a significant presence in the story. There are also newspaper clippings and more about her at the end of the book.

Artwork

Samar Bansal’s lovely cover is a striking shade of blue that may or may not allude to the blue of Bina Di’s khadi sari and showcases important parts of the story like Charles Tegart’s Dobermann, the tram, the hand-pulled cart, and the famous sandesh, to name a few. It makes for a great pastime to read the book and match the images to the story.

Book Information

"A Conspiracy in Calcutta" for children aged 10+ is published by Duckbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The book is part of its “Songs of Freedom” series and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes responsible management of the world's forests. So, go ahead and purchase a hard copy though it's also available as an e-book. Priced at INR 250, buy it from an indie bookstore. You can order from Kahani Tree through an email order info@kahanitree.com and they ship across India. You can also order it through WhatsApp.

Author Note

Lesley Biswas is a freelance writer based in Kolkata and is the author of Unlucky Chumki, Chumki and the Elephants, and Chumki and the Pangolin.

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with GrandpaBringing Back GrandpaBurial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.

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