Partition novels in Hindi, for obvious reasons, have mostly focussed on the Punjab-Lahore-Delhi and the North-West frontiers of Pakistan. However, having served as the colonial capital for more than a century, the state of Bengal in Eastern India was severely ripped apart by the burden of the Partition in 1947 and the endless influx of refugees, the estimated number being three million which went up to five million by 1970 because migration into West Bengal was an ongoing process due to repeated bouts of communal strife. Operation Searchlight in 1971 by Yahya Khan of West Pakistan on the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was considered to be the largest genocide since the Holocaust, which led to ten million Hindu and Muslim refugees coming to West Bengal.
Alka Saraogi’s latest novel Kulbhushan Ka Naam Darj Kijiye is possibly the first of its kind in Hindi fiction that captures crucial historical moments of the fragmentation of Bengal in 1947 to the bloody birth of a new nation named Bangladesh in 1971. The novel encompasses sweeping images of post-partition upheavals in the political, social, economic and cultural lives of Bengal. Spawned through the rich historical imagination of a Hindi-speaking Marwari author in Calcutta, it addresses issues of discrimination, homelessness, migration, and exile. Beginning her career with the award-winning debut novel Kalikatha: via Bypass for which she won the Sahitya Akademi in 1999, Alka Saraogi continues to weave the fabric of the nation within her selected framework of the Marwari diaspora in Bengal of which she is a part. Kulbhushan Ka Naam Darj Kijiye registers the protest of millions of homeless, nameless, helpless refugees who find themselves standing on the margins of history. It voices the collective memories of the trauma of Partition of the most brutal kind.
There is something catchy and startling in the tone of the title itself- a raw force in which the subject demands his name to be registered. This brutal force of mankind springs from the wasted years of suppressed anger at having been pushed to the margins of history; ignored, humiliated, and abused to such an extent that one loses a sense of oneself. “What’s in a name?”, one who stands securely at the centre would flippantly seem to ask. Try this poetic question with the millions of refugees that were, nay still are, (let us not forget our present-day Rohingyas in Burma, our refugee brethren in Syria and Lebanon, the Great Wall of Mexico- all symbols of a broken, divided world) rendered landless, homeless, nameless in the havoc that was wrecked on them in the name of political expediency, and you shall get a fitting reply! How would one reckon, for example, with a refugee who has been forced by his dismal circumstances to abandon the name, caste, kul, gotra- all signifiers of the identity he was born with- to become a completely different individual altogether living with an assumed name? When Saraogi enters into the skin of the character she finds that, inspite of all the unbearable pain of separation and abandonment, Kulbhushan longs for the name and recognition he was born with, for that is something that belongs solely to him and he to it. At the heart of this story is man’s universal need to belong. And who better than Alka Saraogi can express it for she, who belongs to the fifth generation of her migrant ancestral Marwari roots in Bengal, encompasses multiple identities within her!
The novel straddles across both sides of the East-West border of Bengal as the protagonist Kulbhushan Jain, descendant of the migrant Marwari trading family, remembers his long-lost home in Kushtia in East Bengal, his friend Shyama dhobi, and the river Gorai that was once a part of his life and soul. It is the last year of the twentieth-century and Bhushan, now a resident of a rented building in downtown Telipara in North Calcutta, with an assumed Bengali name Gopal Chandra Das, tries to figure out the meaning of his dual existence during the last fifty years of his life- a life that has been shattered not only by the loss of home and hearth but also by communal strife. Within the microcosmic domestic, inner world of his family too, he remains quite the outsider. While his brothers had migrated immediately before the Partition in 1947 and were well-settled in Calcutta, Kulbhushan stayed back in Kushtia for seventeen more years, and was forced to flee the land in the aftermath of the Hazratbal riots of 1964. Bhushan’s father, who was determined not to let go of his land and property at any cost, crossed the borders much later with the teeming millions of refugees during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Bhushan’s well-settled elder brothers look upon him as an intruder; he suffers the ignominy of a refugee within his own family. He is accused of lying, stealing, tramping around, and is beaten up by his own elder brothers. No one stands for him. Not even his own mother whom he loves and serves the most. And so, dejected and rejected from all sides, he decides to leave his home once more and flee away to the inhospitable and infamous refugee camps in Mana in Raipur, and from there to Dandakaranya, the jungle land, where his chance encounter with a man- eating tiger forces him to return. His displacement is total and complete. The novel is indeed a reflection on the ways in which the massive emigration after the Partition broke down the traditional structure of the family for the refugees .
Kulbhushan’s journey to Mana camp in Raipur and then to Dandakaranya through Malkangiri is a tour de force in itself. In her inimitable style of writing Saraogi makes a moment and its peoples in history come alive as she travails her readers through the immeasurable pain and suffering of the refugees. How were the people, who came from the land of rivers, supposed to survive in the fiery, scorching heat of the rocky plateaus, where water had to be bought to quench one’s thirst? The tale of an abandoned old father who dies in Bhushan’s arms, of the old woman who narrates the birth of her grandson on a refugee truck, of the ‘dole’ being meted out like beggars to self-respecting people, people who not-so-long-ago were owners of land and property, of the exploitation of young girls in the camps, of Bhushan meeting his own father almost on deathbed in one of the camps, and many such more, prove to be all the more poignant and telling for their touch of truth and reality. Saraogi’s penchant for true-to-life details is perhaps her greatest strength.
After his return from the Mana camp, circumstances compel him to forsake his Marwari identity as Kulbhushan Jain; he lives in a rented apartment with his Bengali wife Rima Sarkar in downtown Telipara in the claustrophobic lanes of North Kolkata, working as a poor bus-conductor with his half-broken slippers, under an assumed Bengali name of Gopal Chandra Das. Bhushan spends the rest of his life almost like a caretaker in the servitude of his elder brother and his family members.
Integrated with the individual lives of Bhushan and Shyama dhobi is the life of the new nation that is about to be born as Bangladesh. More than a hundred years before the Partition the humanist saint Lalon Shah Fakir, whose dargah in Kushtia stands to this day, had spread the message of love, equality and integration for all human beings, irrespective of religion, race, caste or creed. The Partition, on the contrary, unleashed the worst kind of religious, sectarian and gender violence perpetrated upon mankind.
It was not just a question of Hindu-Muslim religious bigotry; over the years, there was hatred, discrimination and violence between Bengali Muslims and the Urdu-speaking Muslims of West Pakistan. In 1971 the Pakistani Army treated Bengali Muslims as the “inferior” kind of Muslims and their practise of Islam to be “too liberal.” The Pakistani Army received support from the Bihari Muslims who betrayed their own Bengali brethren. With the aim to change the race of the Bengalis, systematic rape and atrocities were carried out against more than two million women. Thus began a process of forceful cultural assimilation of the Bengali muslims by the Pakistani military which was countered by the Awami League under Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and eventually led to the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 in which Bhushan’s childhood friend Shyama dhobi became a matyr.
Parallel to Bhushan’s story of displacement, runs the story of Shyama’s painful discovery of his dubious parentage that leaves him marginalized within his own community of the ‘low’ caste Rajak dhobi tribe of washermen. He was ‘given’ to his father Gobindo Rajak, by a holy saint after his ‘khatna’ had been performed. Shyama, like Lalon Fakir, is neither a Hindu nor a Muslim. His life takes a heroic turn when he marries the unfortunate Amla, a widowed woman and the unwed mother of her beloved Ali’s unborn baby, who as we know later is brought up by Bhushan as his own daughter Malvika.
Saraogi’s deft use of the chronotopes of time and space gives the novel an intensely tight-knit complex structure. Although the novel moves back and forth in time several times, the storyline is never lost or disoriented. The digressions are extensions of enriching experiences. One gets a sense of flowing with the narrative so to speak. With her penchant for true-to-life portrayal of historical events and a gifted eye for detail, Saraogi evokes emotions of willing suspension of disbelief; especially so in the descriptions of Bhushan’s journey to the inhospitable jungles of Dandakaranya or Shyama’s heroic matyrdom as a Muktijodhha with his wife Amla in his arms singing the Behula song thus signifying the consummation of their marriage. Such an inimitable style of evocative writing is almost unique in the genre of Hindi fiction, atleast in the last fifty years.
It is true that there are a myriad issues that the author wishes to address at the same time through little vignettes and anecdotes- there is this tale of illegitimate incestuous love between Bhushan’s children Prashant and Malbika or the tale of Shyama’s dubious parentage or the love triangle between Bhushan, Shyama and the young widow Amla, and many such more; but what runs through all these little meanders and unites them together is the author’s basic belief in and demand for equality of human rights irrespective of colour, caste, class, community or religion.
Kulbhushan is the quintessential underdog; but what keeps him ticking is his heart of gold. He laughs the loudest with those that laugh at him and possesses the gift of wilful forgetfulness to remain eternally happy. However, even the most stubborn underdog does not lose his sense of purpose in life; in the end he cries out against the injustice of social, political, economic, racial and familial discrimination. Hence his appeal to the powers-that-be to register his name as Kulbhushan Jain. Inspite of all the hopeless darkness that engulfs one’s life at certain times, there is a strong note of positivity that is characteristic of the author herself. The novel maps a vast and complex terrain of history and contextualizes both resistance and assimilation, struggles and rejections.
On the flip side one may miss the subtle tongue-in-cheek humour that is so characteristic of Saraogi’s writing and often lightens the heaviness of the subject. At times, the sombre note rings loud without a break. However, on the whole the book needs to be applauded for the sheer courage with which the author lays bare the discomforting image of humanity torn by religious hatred and bigotry and man’s innate capacity to transcend it all with his faith in love, equality and acceptance. The basic truth that emerges from the novel, then, is this: although the Partition of India in 1947 was on religious lines, cultural identity is a far more stronger and deep-rooted signifier than religion. Kulbhushan Jain transcends the boundaries of caste and religion in his friendship with Shyama and in raising Malvika as his own daughter.
Anupama Choubey is a PhD research scholar with the West Bengal State University, an educator, and a translator. Her areas of interest include Cultural Hybridity, Migration, and Community Studies. Her writing includes Role of ICT in Higher Education, Ashin Dutta Memorial Lecture: Identity Formation Among Indian Tribes, Ghoshparar Satima O Kartabhaja Sampradai, Kanakdurga in translation, Just English, and others. She is at ease with verbal and written communication in English, Bengali, Hindi and Bhojpuri. In her free time she loves to be in the midst of nature.