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On what’s lost and found

Divided into four acts, the book offers bare facts before inviting its readers to enter where the action is at—the undivided Bengal in the grip of nationalist uprisings. While it was a hotbed of literary works that helped give voice to the freedom struggle, the region was also a site of inter-religious disharmony and casteism. Furthermore, the stress on how the murder of the assistant superintendent of police, John Saunders, in 1928 by Bhagat Singh and Sivaram Rajguru helped influence members of Tarun Sangha, a right-wing outfit, to stage the murder of sub-inspector Jyotish Chandra Roy, demonstrates what leads to acting in the throes of passion. As the 14-year-old Shishu was tasked to eliminate Roy, he was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment consequently. And it’s behind bars that he continued to write poetry, remembering Noni di. Though he may have managed to cherry-pick his best produce in the notebook before meeting her, he was a bad poet. How does one know that? The author, who decides to give herself the permission to report fiction, too.

“What I want to tell you is that all of this is true,” she declares in the Prologue. Invoking a culinary metaphor, she notes that the “cooks are long gone. I can taste the intense flavours in the pan’s scrapings. From this I’m going to try and reconstitute the dish. There are bound to be errors. If you quit trusting me, I’ll understand.” The admission helps in two ways. First, it exposes the vulnerability of the narrator. Second, it underlines the benefits of reporting. Devoted to the service of storytelling, Sengupta reminds one of Taslima Nasrin, who evoked emotions and conflicts of the time in her 1993 novel Lajja.

The beauty of this book, however, and unlike Nasrin’s novel, is that it chooses to engage with language and elements of storytelling head-on, be it the narration being patinated with renditions like the one from the Prologue: “How odd, [Shishu] thought, that some people insist real life lacks plot,” or the inclusion of poems from the notebook in their English translation, these techniques signal that a novel should be free from any strictures of storytelling.

The way Sengupta manages to juxtapose issues facing contemporary politics with the pressing issues of the time renders her book timeless. Additionally, in leveraging the best of both worlds—the fictive and real—and in establishing that if we chose to not learn from history, it would keep on repeating itself, she underlines that the consequences of politically bad choices would be borne by the most disenfranchised, always. Barring shifting viewpoints, which could pose challenging to read, A Lost People’s Archive is a tribute to the story of the people who don’t feature in the dominant narrative, and are greatly disserved as a consequence.

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