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Victory Colony: Past, present, past

Rihan Najib | Updated on November 06, 2020 Published on November 06, 2020

Reality bites: The novel foregrounds the extreme precarity of the lives of refugees ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images

Bhaswati Ghosh’s debut novel, set amidst the refugee crisis in Kolkata post the Partition, is a stark reminder of how the history of violence repeats itself

* “Every day, new batches of refugees spilled into the city like sugar falling off a torn sack,” writes Ghosh

* The book is strongest in its depictions of the resilience of the refugees who have staked their claim to the city

American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, in a 1963 magazine profile, emphasised the power that lay within the act of reading, not just as a way to come to terms with one’s place in history, but also understanding how the past repeats itself. He notes, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

When we encounter Manas Dutta, one of the protagonists of Bhaswati Ghosh’s debut novel, Victory Colony, 1950, he is reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Spread all around him is the abject chaos of a 1949 refugee camp in Kolkata, where Dutta is a volunteer. Independence from British rule, for both India and Pakistan, had come at the steep price of Partition, and all along the Radcliffe Line unfolded suffering of unforeseen magnitudes. The newly minted province of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) witnessed the exodus of people fleeing violence for the relative safety of West Bengal. “Every day, new batches of refugees spilled into the city like sugar falling off a torn sack,” writes Ghosh in the opening pages of the novel.

Victory Colony, 1950 / Bhaswati Ghosh / Yoda Press / Fiction / ₹499

 

Among the refugees from East Pakistan landing up bewildered and helpless in Kolkata’s Sealdah railway station is Amala and her younger brother Kartik. The children of a fisherman in East Bengal’s Madhabpasa region, the siblings had to flee home after the murder of their parents by armed rioters seeking to ‘cleanse’ the land. To add to their horror, the duo are separated by the milling crowds at the station. Dutta and his team of volunteers find Amala in a state of frenzied grief, and they take her to a refugee camp where hundreds like her from East Bengal live suspended between government apathy and a bowl of gruel. “Shob toh chole gaelo (Everything is lost),” says Amala, echoing the sentiments of many others in the camp who left their homes with nothing more than the clothes on their back, and faced an uncertain future in a country that didn’t want them. Though the governments in both Pakistan and India had signed agreements to protect the refugees crossing the borders, Ghosh writes, “The ink they stamped on paper failed to arrest the flow of blood on the ground.”

The novel foregrounds the extreme precarity of the lives of refugees, especially the terrible ways in which governments perpetuate the cycle of violence, chipping away at the dignity of an individual condemned to be stateless. In this sense, the novel is particularly resonant for the current times. “Malnutrition became an active verb walking around the camp,” writes Ghosh, describing the foetid environs in which the refugees lived. Even as Amala slowly makes new friendships in the camp and attends sewing lessons, she also attempts to find her brother, her sole connection to her life in Madhabpasa. Meanwhile, the other inhabitants, restless at being forced into scrounging for scraps and determined to survive, take over a vacant plot of land that belonged to a local zamindar and establish a small shanty-town of their own named — in all defiance — Bijoy Nagar, or Victory Colony.

The narrative switches between the points of view of Dutta and Amala, between whom a tender romance blossoms, despite the weariness of survival. Their marriage in the face of his upper-caste family’s opposition forms another key plot point. The book is strongest in its depictions of the resilience of the refugees who have staked their claim to the city. Its rich descriptions of food and the subtle differences between the cuisines of East and West Bengal are delightful to read. Not a page goes by without a mention of food, whether it is a humble snack of roasted chickpeas or an elaborate wedding feast comprising three kinds of fish preparations, mutton and chicken curries with the ever-present luchi.

However, the novel lacks narrative tautness, given a somewhat meandering plot. Dutta and Amala, though perfectly decent and honourable characters, aren’t given enough distinct characteristics to remain with the reader after the story has finished. Another jarring aspect of the novel is how some issues are resolved with almost facetious ease. For instance, Amala’s brother Kartik, whose absence is an open wound for her throughout the novel, is suddenly found in the school Dutta teaches in.

Yet, Ghosh’s book is a valuable addition to Partition literature focused on the experience of people from the Bengal region, such as Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Purbo-Paschim and Hasan Azizul Huq’s Agunpakhi, among others.

Ghosh, a writer and translator who lives in Canada, has previously translated into English Somendranath Bandyopadhyay’s Bengali book My Days With Ramkinkar Baij, does a fine job in bringing alive the tensions of incipient nationhood and how ordinary lives are caught in the crossfire. A book set against the backdrop of historical events allows us to read deeper meanings in the current political circumstances. As nations harden their stance on immigrants and close their borders to those seeking asylum, the book is a stark reminder of how history is repeated and the legacy of violence continues.

Rihan Najib is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on November 06, 2020
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