A story about a child soldier on the run is a rare exception in the young-adult (YA) genre, dominated as it is by fantastical creatures, characters and circumstances. Journalist Swati Sengupta makes a refreshing departure from this beaten track by setting her YA novel, Guns on My Red Earth, in the Maoist heartland of India, the forests of Lalgarh in West Bengal.

The ironically named protagonist, Shanto (which means calm), is a boy of 12 or 13, growing up in a remote village in Jangalmahal with his aunt and uncle. His parents, who are Maoists, cannot afford to keep him with them because the call of duty forbids them from doing so.

Abandoned by father and mother, Shanto’s boyhood is made miserable by abject poverty and the merciless beatings he suffers at the hands of his carers. It’s hardly surprising that the mere promise of three wholesome meals a day becomes incentive enough for him, as for scores of hungry boys and girls in his vicinity, to join ranks with the Maoists.

Sengupta’s story moves nimbly, from Shanto’s recruitment as a child soldier to his quick disenchantment with the violent underpinnings of his missions. He is repulsed by the idea of causing death and destruction and decides to flee the camp, even at the expense of losing the assured meals and shelter.

After a heady adventure, he manages to reach the Medinipur railway station and eke out a living there at a tea stall, thanks to the kindness of strangers. But it is only a matter of time before the police arrest him and try to co-opt him into their mission of hunting out the insurgents, putting him through merciless torture.

Another encounter with the Maoists ensues as Shanto escapes from the heavily fortified Lalgarh police station, and the story comes to a rousing climax with him risking his life trying to foil a major operation to blow up railway tracks.

Guns on My Red Earth: By Swati Sengupta, Red Turtle, 166 pages, Rs195
Guns on My Red Earth: By Swati Sengupta, Red Turtle, 166 pages, Rs195

The abusive uncle and aunt, the compassionate police officer, the garrulous railway station master and the murderous Maoists do not rise above their dully familiar contours either. These are types we have encountered before, and perhaps in more accomplished stories.

In spite of having the ingredients for a gripping thriller, Sengupta’s plot falls short in its execution. Much of the book is spent on setting out the context in which the story unfolds—a potted history of the ultra-Left and its present-day ramifications, political tensions in the Maoist heartland, and the daily hardships of people living in those parts of the country.

There are passages that work excellently as lucid and informed reportage on the goings-on in one of the more troubled regions of India. But fiction demands more than the hawk eye and intuition of a seasoned journalist, especially when it intends to reach out to young readers in possession of restless imaginations.