Literary Review

A million micro-histories now

The Partition of Bengal — Fragile Borders and New Identities; Debjani Sengupta, Cambridge University Press, Rs. 875.  

In his review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book In Other Worlds in The New York Times dated February 9, Dwight Garner describes her as “one of literature’s linguistic nomads” who is “caught between Bengali and English.” The remark alludes to the powerful language-based identity of all Bengalis who also take pride in their equally powerful literary traditions.

Debjani Sengupta uses this powerful tool of literary historiography to bring out a million micro-histories to do justice to the partition discourse on the East which, she says, was smothered by the ‘sudden catastrophic violence’ of Punjab that attracted greater attention compared to the streaming piecemeal displacements across West Bengal, Bangladesh and the Northeast, which were no less violent and are best captured in the literary writings by Bangla-speaking people from these regions.

She does not claim to write high history but seeks to outline ordinary people’s lives in the making of high history. While high history focuses only on the visible impulses of violence in the form of murder and mayhem, it misses out on the finer invisible sentiments of not just agony and loss but also humility, sacrifice, care; where crying together gets mixed with small laughter, justifying the supremacy of the human spirit over all evil. Sengupta shows how violence brings out not just the worst in humans but also ignites the best of the examples; where resistance gets mixed with accommodation.

The turmoil-ridden Northeast indeed is partly a creation of repeated vivisections of Bengal during 1910, 1947 and 1971, leading to an exodus of Bengalis to the Barak valley of Assam and into Tripura. Chakmas, the non-Muslim majority in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, had hoisted the Indian flag thinking their land was in India. This was not unusual. Dominique Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight tells us how this sentiment was normal during Partition. Chakmas were humiliated for this act of ‘treason’, making them flee to the neighbouring Northeast States and later settle down in Arunachal Pradesh with disastrous social and political consequences.

Sengupta seeks to go beyond trauma, violence and nostalgia to capture the complex ways in which partition affected people’s lives and their sense of who they are. This is where she finds imaginative renderings of literature as the most apt ‘source’ that find a place in the upcoming field of literary historiography, which foregrounds the less visible and delayed effects of these violent displacements. Even in Bangla literature, Sengupta focuses on writings in Bangla and its dialects, especially from the hinterland rather than metropolitan places where the power-knowledge nexus engulfs creative impulses.

She, though, is not averse to elite, upper-caste, Western-educated writers like Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay or Tagore and their institutions, who laid the foundations of literary renaissance in and around Kolkata, which was then British India’s capital. Their extravagance of romance about individuals and a glorious past brings out the contestations of modernity and tradition to create a vast reading public for Partition literature.

She is also not averse to using government reports, newspapers and memoirs in addition to her focus on novels and short stories. The Great Kolkata Killings (August 1946) form the backdrop of Ashapurna Devi’s Mittirbari (1947), and Manik Bandopadhyay’s Swadhinatar Swad (1951) that outline the ripples in personal relationships and family structures. Inhabitants of Mittirbari include the newly-married Surekha who seeks ‘freedom’ by attending political meetings, while widowed Umashoshi, obsessed with drinking tea, sees ‘freedom’ in hoping sugar will be ‘easy to procure’ from the market to escape humiliating insults.

Noakhali comes as Gandhi spends seven weeks straddling across helmets to revive Hindu-Muslim amity. Historians describe this as his ‘finest hour’ but also one that was to ‘achieve so little’. She complements the historian’s narrative by reading it through Ateen Bandopadhyay’s Neelkontho Pakhir Khojey (1967) where the everlasting friendships of Maloti/ Shamu highlight serene landscapes amid ‘guilt and pain’ reinforced by social turmoil of regimented identities and forced displacements. Maloti ends up as a smuggler carrying rice across the border.

Dulalendu Chattopadhyay’s Ora Ajo Udvastu (1983) draws on the author’s experiences, first in the Dhubulia refugee camp and later at the refugee colony in Garia in South Calcutta.

The flow of refugees knows no beginning, no end. Prafulla Kumar Chakraborty’s Prantik Manob (1997) tells how “refugees in Sealdah station had come leaving behind all to live here with self-respect...The stone and brick city stared at them with deep contempt.” It took four years for the legislative assembly to shift, in 1951, from debating the extending of relief to rehabilitation. Unending displacements come alive in Hasan Azizul Huq’s Agunpakhi (2008). Written in a Bengali dialect spoken in southern Bangladesh in a first-person account of Meter Bou, who chooses the village over new nation-defying territorial nationalism.

In conclusion, Sengupta raises probing questions like what does it mean to be part of a new nation if one’s location is outside its borders? How does one choose between being minority or refugee; both fraught with dilemmas of citizenship and livelihood? These ‘others’ become ‘marginal and expendable’ and continue to be ignored in post-colonial discourse. Her groundbreaking work on the partition of Bengal opens the floodgates for new research. As an epic of lost voices, its opening appears too intense for a casual reader. Sometimes a bit wordy, the tedious style obscures and appears repetitive. The small font adds to the challenge, so it surely needs more than one reading to fathom its value-add to the existing body of literature on this subject.

Swaran Singh is professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The Partition of Bengal — Fragile Borders and New Identities; Debjani Sengupta, Cambridge University Press, Rs. 875.

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 8:30:02 PM |

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