Chintan Girish Modi interviewed me about my debut novel. The most rewarding part of the interview was his reference to a blog post I wrote in 2011 regarding home and what it means for me. Read the interview in Firstpost.
Feminism in India has listed Victory Colony, 1950 in a “selection of books by women writers in 2020.” which the writer found to “defy homogenous understanding of Indian woman, laying bare the contradictions, contestations, compliances that Indian women are going through, being located within the intersectional grid of their realities.”
To quote from the article:
Resistance against the norm has always marked the crux of women’s writings, where they have been found experimenting with the given. Bhaswati Ghosh’s Victory Colony, 1950 (Yoda Press, 2020) zooms into Amala’s life, a victim of Partition in the East, as she traverses through trying political conditions, displacement, self-fashioning, and finding companionship in a new land, thus, giving a fresh perspective to the genre of Partition fictions, where life is not just about rebuilding, but about refin(d)ing.
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto
Translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad
First published in The Beacon
Mention Saadat Hasan Manto’s name and a landscape of tragedy unravels in all its grotesqueness. That he has become almost a Siamese twin of the Partition stories he wrote is a minor tragedy in itself. In both age and disposition, there is an altogether different Manto who predates his avatar as a chronicler of the Partition. Bombay Stories introduces one to this earlier Manto, and with him, the city that built his reputation as a writer. The same city that enabled him to become an indubitable annotator of “lowlifes.”
Manto’s Bombay (yes, still very much Bombay), part of pre-independence India, boils with cosmopolitan chaos. As a pot that melted extremes, the city became a home for everyone, from the business tycoon to the migrant labourer and the prostitute. The last group drew Manto’s literary imagination with an intensity bordering on obsession. Nearly every tale in Bombay Stories features a prostitute, even if she isn’t the central character. The skin-brushing proximity Manto evinces in projecting the lives of sex workers raised many an eyebrow in his lifetime. He had been accused of employing obscenity in his stories. One can see why. Manto presents the prostitute in her grimy and broken hovel, stripping her of exaggerated fancies of glamour and lust. The realism apart, the bigger surprise Manto packs in these stories is his not-so-hidden feminist agenda.
When Kanta opens the door to him stark naked, Khushiya, a pimp, is shocked and asks why she doesn’t have any clothes on.
Kanta smiled. “When you said it was you, I thought, what’s the big deal? It’s only my Khushiya, I’ll let him in…”
The woman’s brazenness hits Khushiya as a whack of insult. It torments him that she could consider him so insignificant as to think nothing of appearing naked in front of him. This weird conflict in the pimp’s mind is a projectile of writerly brilliance. Who would think that a prostitute’s nudity — her most lascivious and prized offering — could be turned on its head and into a weapon to injure the male ego?
Manto’s prostitutes are the axiomatic flesh-and-blood, but they are more. They have beautiful minds of their own, which they exercise despite the compulsion of being tied to the body to pay for food.
The most visceral demonstration of this happens in The Insult, where Saugandhi, a sex worker kicks patriarchy in its shins instead of remaining in its bubble wrap of faux security. Ironically, Saugandhi’s provocation comes not from sexual exploitation but rejection from a potential customer. A man with whom her pimp sets her up says “Yuhkk,” in apparent revulsion and dashes away in his car. In the man’s single meaningless utterance, Saugandhi (literally, fragrant-smelling) decodes a lifetime of humiliation that masculinity has heaped on her. It is in her getting even that Manto concentrates the story’s greatest force. Shortly after the rejection episode, Madho, Saugandhi’s leeching “lover” reappears with his need for money. She rips his photos from her walls and throws them out of the window uttering, “Yuhkk. That is how she seizes her moment of showing Madho — and through him, every man — his place.
In Ten Rupees, Sarita, a young girl, is forced into prostitution by her mother. The story breaks one’s heart before enthralling and finally healing it — with twists as sharp as the ones Kifayat, the driver in the story – makes his car swerve to. Ten Rupees is evidence of the perversion of depraved men looking to sexually exploit a young girl. It is also proof of what the alchemy between a writer’s masterly imagination and his sensitivity can do to kindle the softest core of the human heart, no matter how savage. Ten Rupees is a fantastical story, electrifyingly so because of a young girl who is just that and the Hindi film songs she breaks into unbidden. It’s also an extraordinary story. Although almost a fairy tale, over the brief wingspan of its flight, it holds out the hope of coming true somewhere at some point in time.
In his depiction of prostitutes, Manto is somewhere between an exploiter and a benefactor – more like an ally. His vision has a diving mask that takes him beyond the prostitute’s essential physical territory. Accompanying him to their shanties allows the reader to see them, really see them — the way they live and dream, quarrel with or negotiate their fate. It isn’t difficult to find in Manto’s whores a metaphor for the Bombay of the 1940s. Like her, the city welcomed in a businesslike way anyone willing to pay for the pleasures it offered them. There were no strident calls for keeping outsiders out and the place teemed with characters from different regions, religions and communities.
Only one other character could possibly make the prostitute envious with the consistency of its appearance in Bombay stories. That of Manto’s. Most of the stories are in the first person, and the narrator refers to himself simply as Manto. It is tempting to take this as the author’s real-life persona, but one is well advised to read this character within the fictional framework of the stories. As translator, Matt Reeck informs us in his detailed notes, the Manto of the stories isn’t really a mirror image of the real-life Manto. Still, this self-depreciating, temperamental persona is close enough to the real Manto, one suspects. This is particularly true when he shares vignettes from the Hindi film industry, where he worked as a writer. He delights the reader with an insider’s view of the film industry, at once an enigma and an imperishable field of gossip fuel.
Consider this principle from a ten-point list Narayan, who works in the film industry draws up for working in the studio. #3: If you fall in love with an actress, don’t waste time dilly-dallying. Go meet her in private and recite the line, “I, too, have a tongue in my mouth.” If she doesn’t believe you, then stick the whole thing out. And#6, which rings so true, one could have written it today. Remember that an actor has an afterlife too. From time to time, instead of preening before a mirror, get a little dirty. I mean, do some charity work.” [Janaki]
The translators, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad have rendered these stories into English with compelling credence without over-anglicising the text. The distinct Indian-ness of the narration is well preserved for the most part as is Manto’s signature sarcasm and wry humour.
One reads Manto not just for the stories he wrote but also because of the way he embalms each story with his deep humanity, his acerbic wit and his near-allergic impatience for masks — semantic or societal. In Mozelle, technically the only “Partition” story in the collection is also arguably the most brilliant in form, content and technique. It depicts the horrors of the communal tensions of the time with such vividness and neurotic pace that the reader is stunned into a suffocating silence. This one story is also an eerie foreboding of the departure of Manto himself from his beloved Bombay, which he had to leave following Partition and from the pluralistic freedom it offered him.
Bombay Stories is therefore, is an important collection to understand not only a city but its author who, tragically, died not in but of Partition.
First published in The Wire
Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017
In writing my first novel, whose protagonist is a young refugee woman from East Pakistan, I employed the device of coincidence to achieve a happy ending. Doing so wasn’t a sudden rush on my part to end what had become a protracted writing project but a well thought-out conclusion. It was not to be. When they read it, two of my trusted beta readers quashed it summarily, citing it as lazy and escapist. Even though incredible incidents can happen in real life, one of them advised, in a work of fiction, coincidences are hard to pull off convincingly.
An incident Debali Mookerjea-Leonard mentions in the preface to Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence starkly bears out this paradox.
Shortly after the All India Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in 1946, the author’s grandfather was stranded in Howrah station as public transport had been suspended in the wake of the sectarian clashes. He eventually got a ride from a kind Muslim family who had a private car, but had to climb on the footboard as the vehicle was full. To ensure his safety, he was given a flag of the Muslim League and advised to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” when passing through Muslim neighbourhoods. He did, and reached his home safely.
The insanity that gripped the subcontinent a year later when India was partitioned has been arduously chronicled in historical archives. In the privileging of journalistic reportage and record-keeping, personal histories surrounding the traumatic event haven’t received much attention until recently. The initiatives of Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Jashodhara Bagchi, among others come to mind.
Mookerjea-Leonard’s book is an important intervention in this regard, not only because of its meticulous research and compelling arguments but because it sits in that nebulous middle – a no man’s land if you will – of fact and fiction. The author examines with incisive rigour fictional works on Partition and juxtaposes them against factual information and recent recordings of oral histories. As someone not directly affected by the event, hers is a lens that is both objective and earnest.
The works discussed in Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition are mostly from Bengal, which the author calls the “neglected shelves” of Bengali literature, written by writers from both sides of the Radcliffe divide. As she mentions in the Preface, this book is her tribute to her city, Calcutta. It is also a conscious effort to shine a light on the sufferings of those at the eastern end of the divide, as the tragedy of Partition in Bengal has been either underrepresented or misrepresented when compared to Partition in Punjab. This could well be attributed to, as Mookerjea-Leonard is cognisant of, the predominant and recurrent theme ofdisplacement in the east as opposed to that of horrific violence in the west.
Read the rest in The Wire.
[This is an extract from “Aranyalipi,” Amiya Sen’s nonfiction book-length account of refugees from East Pakistan who had been rehabilitated in Dandakaranya, a region that includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Dandakaranya Development Authority was created by the union government in 1958 to assist refugees from Pakistan. This excerpt appears in Muse India’s Literature of Refugees issue.]
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh
…I had no idea about Dandakaranya. After crossing a hundred and forty-five miles of hilly terrain between Mana camp and Raipur we reached Kondagaon–high above the plains. Yet, even at that point, I didn’t realize we were at the forest’s gate. This was the entrance to the heart of the Dandakaranya project. I had imagined the real Dandak forest lay deeper inside. This was a dense settlement of thousands of people–little Bengal, just like little Andaman.
Jogani astounded me. This was the first planned village as part of the project, about six or seven miles from Kondagaon. In July 1959, the village of Jogani was established with 88 families and a total population of 392.
Although we are now urban dwellers on a mass basis, the image of a village is well etched in our hearts. It is rare to find an individual who hasn’t seen a village or lived in one for at least some time. But what a village this was! A few drab-looking tin houses sat in an area cleared off the forest floor. No other human settlement was visible through the gaps of the scattered shaal trees lining the nearby area.
A few broken houses dotted the landscape. Many of those rehabilitated here with government aid had already left the village. Jogani’s land is sterile; it doesn’t cultivate any edible crop. I was told that only two or three families had been lucky enough to receive arable land. The rest of the land was left unclaimed at the time of my visit. Those who left the village didn’t do so without giving a fight to the infertile soil. Along with their menfolk, women too had taken up crowbars to rid the soil of shaal saplings and weeds. For days on end, many of them ate grass seeds to curb hunger. At last, helpless and defeated, they drifted off this settlement.
There is soil-testing laboratory in Jagdalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Apparently, all peasant refugees are allotted land only after the soil is tested in that lab. But Jogani tells a different story–it doesn’t seem like the soil of this village was ever tested. This could be the first step of an experiment with agriculture-reliant refugees.
Those who have stayed back in the village depend on jobs or labour. Take Jaladhar Sarkar, for instance. He came to India in 1954, from Bishwambhapur village in Srihatta district. After living in a camp for four years, he has been rehabilitated in Jogani with twenty-one bighas of land. He and his two sons support a family of six or seven by working as peons and construction workers. The land they received lies fallow and unused.
In 1960, a loom had been opened in Jogani. It still exists but has lost its sheen. Work goes on at an irregular pace. Whenever the products made there accumulate, there is a pause in the work of daily wagers.
Currently, the only employment generator around Jogani is Borgaon Industrial Centre, about four or five miles from the village. Men and women from Jogani walk every day to work there. Among them, the daily wagers are the most disadvantaged. The work, low-paying as it is, doesn’t come with the guarantee of being available all through the year.
It was a Monday. The village, if one could call this desert-like place that, looked totally deserted. Besides shaaland mahua trees, there was no sign of green anywhere. Not even a pumpkin or bottle gourd patch that one saw in Mana’s camps. Mana has water, it has canals and ponds. Here, tube wells exist. Had paddy or any other crop grown on the land, the villagers would have pumped out water to cultivate some vegetables. But where is the time for that now! Every morning they must run to Borgaon in search of work. If only that could fill their bellies! But then, it’s possible that that the soil here is indeed barren.
I met a few people–none of them evinced any joy on having received land and a house for free. Actually, they got the money for their houses as a loan, which they needed to pay off once they were settled. But what settlement and what pay-off? With no place to go, they continue to stay here, in spite of all hardship. But they are not un-enterprising. They toil hard to make sure their children receive education. They would take up any work that comes their way. But the opportunities are so limited.
The very first step of the Dandakaranya settlement left me disappointed. In comparison, I was pleased to see Bijapur as part of my present trip. This was situated in Bastar too, but as a transit camp, not a village. As of March 15, 1965, 67 families stayed there.
There were only two tube wells in the entire camp. But a spot of green welcomed one to every hut. Bottle gourd and pumpkin vines climbed up the roofs of huts. Mounds of mahua flowers were spread out to dry in front of several houses. These would be boiled to make jaggery. This settlement was forest-dependant too. But the dense cluster of huts and the camp’s consistent population had imbued it with a lively atmosphere. The camp dwellers effused optimism. They dreamed of ascending to a better life — of farmland, house, agricultural loan, and the victory roll of produce brushing against plough.
Life is at work, everywhere. Saplings pierce cracked walls to sprout. Flowers bloom on mountain tops. I have even seen fish germinating in the city’s makeshift drains.
I enter a hut and find a young mother carrying her infant on her lap. It’s her first born. The young father, though excited, is also a bit distressed. Nights in Bastar are still quite chilly. The child doesn’t have any warm clothing. In many homes, I saw just kanthas and pillows for bedding. No one has quilts or blankets. Almost all these people arrived in India following the 1964 riots in Pakistan.
In an instant, that cabinet stuffed with blankets in Mana flashed before my eyes.
I ask the refugees, “Didn’t you get any blankets?”
“No, didimoni,” say the men and women in unison. “We only got woks, enamel plates, a bucket and a few such things. These were given to us in Sealdah station. We didn’t get anything after coming here.”
“You all came here through Mana, right?”
The path to enter Dandakaranya is through Mana—the headquarters of all transit camps and work centres of the project.
According to government statistics, refugees over the age of eight are provided sixteen rupees or clothing worth that amount. The record doesn’t mention how many times this happens; possibly only once. The record also notes the distribution of blankets.
“Woollen blankets may be supplied at the rate of one blanket per adult, subject to a maximum of three per family.” [Estimates Committee, (B.C. No. 412) 1964-65]
The blankets were meant for last year’s riot victims. These refugees belong to the same category. Why didn’t they get the blankets then?
The dole money the refugees receive isn’t enough to cover even two square meals a day, let alone allow for clothes. But leave aside government funds and statistics; the stash I saw in Mana came mostly from donations meant for refugees. If those blankets don’t come to these unfortunate people, have they been filled in almirahs just for the purpose of being displayed to VIPs?
In Mana, expecting mothers received yet another benefit. When a baby was born, the mother and her child got a set of new clothes. The women of Jogani aren’t as fortunate.
A gentleman accompanying me said, “Don’t believe everything they say. These people here are no less sly; they might have sold off the blankets.”
I know it is easier being the devil than the lord. But looking at their faces, it appeared improbable that so many male and female devils had landed here from East Bengal.
For argument’s sake, even if one accepted the gentleman’s proposition, the question remains as to why these people sold off the blankets. One can discount those who have left the camp. But those who have stayed back know very well how indispensable blankets are during winters here. They are also aware that it is impossible for them to find any alternative sources of combating the cold weather. If knowing this, they still sold off the blankets, it follows they must have done so out of extreme penury.
The British robbed India to add riches to its empire. And we have robbed our own poor of food and shelter–in the name of freedom.
A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada
It’s my first visit to the doctor’s office in my new city. The pain in my right leg is nagging to the point of being obstinate. Right at the entrance, next to the reception window, a sign says “If you are rude to my staff, I won’t see you today.” That’s not a very friendly doctor, I whisper to my husband, who is accompanying me to lend moral support. After the initial wait time (about 15 minutes), my name is called, and the clinic assistant checks my blood pressure, a routine exercise. Then begins the wait for the doctor. A good 20 minutes go by, until she knocks the room before entering it.
After the initial pleasantries, the doctor asks me if I speak Hindi. I nod yes.
I tell her that my pain worsens upon standing on any hard surface for a while. She asks if I have to stand in the kitchen a lot.
“Yes,” I say.
“There’s a particular type of mat that has a cushioning effect. Place that in your kitchen,” she tells me, even suggesting the store from where to get it.
After writing a prescription for anti-inflammatory medication, the doctor returns to the thread she had left off with her reference to Hindi.
“Where in India are you from?” She asks.
“Delhi,” I say, hastening to add that my husband is a Sikh, from Punjab.
“We are from Lahore and speak only Punjabi at home.” She says, making it a point to let me know that the Punjabi she speaks is “very similar to what Sikhs speak.” That’s because she belongs to the jatt caste, one of the many who were converted to Islam, she informs.
She ends the (very friendly) conversation by recommending the cushioning mats again. “I too have this pain and always use the mats whenever I have a daawat at home and have to stand in the kitchen for long.”
It is technically India’s Independence Day. Two women from opposite sides of a land split into two in a cleaving that saw insane bloodshed share slices of history and culture over a medical visit.
And, they share insights on lessening pain.
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