Where is Ruhiton Kurmi going? As Samaresh Basu’s Bengali classic, Fever: Mahakaler Rather Ghoda, opens, Ruhiton, a protagonist of indeterminate age and uncertain health, is trying, through a hazy, half-conscious process of mental deduction, to decide the answer to this question. It has been seven days since he heard that he is being shifted from one jail to another: It has been seven years since his imprisonment. He is a revolutionary in Bengal, from a settlement to the north-east of the place whose name “the world knew…now".

File photo of Samaresh Basu. Hindustan Times

The brutalization of prison life becomes a dull undertone that anchors all his remembered stories. Arunava Sinha’s translation recreates the staccato flicker of his internal monologue: “It had been going on like this for three nights. Not exactly like this, but in different ways. Last night he had been shepherded into a car soon after midnight. Yet he had been told earlier that they would leave in the morning. The previous night he had been told that they would depart at dawn."

Its choppiness in English is unsettling, not because it is hard to read, but because the register is so realistic, and it is easy to hear, if not comprehend, the Bengali of Basu’s novel. The writer of over a hundred novels, Basu, born in 1924, also knew the worker’s life, and that of the unionizer. He began writing during a stint in jail in newly independent India, for belonging to the then-banned Communist Party, and wrote his first novel at the age of 21.

The Bengal which emerges through Fever is far closer to that of Mahasweta Devi’s than to that of some of his urbane male contemporaries, whose stories of the region’s landed rich and Calcutta strivers have determined a place for themselves so forcefully in the national imagination. Fever is a small novel, but there is space in it for a fiercely Leftist world view as well as a pricklier, more complex human story which exists, not at odds with ideology, but infiltrating it. So Basu writes both a successful tragedy as well as a political novel; his ideas and his protagonist exist not to contradict each other, but to tell the truth about each other.

Fever-Mahakaler Rather Ghoda: Samaresh Basu, translated by Arunava Sinha, Random House India, 152 pages, Rs250.