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Bengal Comes of Age

Sucheta Mahajan

By Gargi Chakravartty
Bluejay Books, Shrishti, New Delhi, 2005, pp. xv 200, Rs. 295.00


This book marks Bengal’s coming of age in studies of Partition refugees, hitherto peopled by Punjabis. This mirrors the redrawing of the refugee map of Delhi in the 1970s with the setting up of EPDP Colony, now known as Chittaranjan Park, but still Bangali Colony in popular lingo. For years the Refugee in Delhi’s public imagination was the doughty Punjabi of Malviya, Rajendra and Lajpat Nagar who made good in a generation and converted the tenements allotted to them into three-storied villas with Pergo floors and Carcara marble and the mandatory potted palm straight from Inside Out. The East Bengali refugees changed this stock image of refugee life. They sought to miniaturize the lush undergrowth of East Bengal in their gardens and backyards, somewhat like the muhajirs in Karachi who recreate the flavours of the mango orchards of Malihabad in Joginder Paul’s Khwabro. Unlike the manicured rose garden the Punjabis copied from the English sahibs, here trees, creepers and bushes ran riot. Sheoli and champa, joba, creepers with huge pumpkins and gourds for the curries with the head of the fish, which we learnt to eat with relish after the initial horror at crunching crisply fried eyes.   Chakravartty’s book ends that stereotype of the Bengali refugee as the babumoshai who measured out his life in the evening pilgrimage to the haat for maachh and mishti. She recounts the lives of the refugees in West Bengal who lived for years in camps in terrible conditions, whose children died like flies (two lakhs in one estimate) and who got a roof over their heads only after grabbing land. Her refugee participates in democratic politics, she is educated, may even come from a revolutionary background. She is not inclined to join the Hindu communal party, the Hindu Mahasabha, as in North India where the Jan Sangh used the bitterness engendered by riots and dislocation to gain footholds among refugees. The image of the refugee that endures after reading Chakravartty’s book is as an active political participant, marching in rallies, fighting for shelter and food. This image supplants the earlier archetypical image of ‘women in partition’ as helpless victims caught between communal aggression and patriarchal honour —the Sikh women of Thoa Khalsa, jumping to their death in the well in the gurdwara, in a scene recounted by Urvashi Butalia and immortalized by the actress Uttara Baokar in Govind Nihalani’...

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