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Dark nights of the soul

It’s bengal in the 1940s. Millions suffer as millions die. Sixty years later, a startling memoir tells us of a grave injustice.

books Updated: Jan 01, 2010 23:59 IST
Maloy Kumar Dhar

Train To India: Memories of Another Bengal

Suhit Sen
Penguin n Rs 350 n pp 307

The trauma of Partition has been revisited in many stories and chronicles. This memoir, too, tells the sundering of Bengal and the scars it left on men and women on both sides of the border in a vivid narrative.

Maloy Kumar Dhar’s story of his childhood in East Bengal and East Pakistan is brought alive by the detail of life in a small corner of Mymensingh district. It is a good story, which, in the telling, brings to life not just the fortunes of a family once prosperous and lordly and later severely beleaguered, but also those of the village, with some of the interplay of caste and class and the divide between religious communities that became increasingly constitutive of it.

Dhar and his immediate family were, in this account, compelled to leave their village, much against the wishes of his father, when he was around 11 years old as life after Partition became tenuous. Dhar’s family seems to have been fairly big zamindars whose overlordship was scarcely contested until Partition became imminent. When it did, the comfortable assumptions of authority and obedience were shattered within a short space of time.

If the representation of the pre-lapsarian world of the mid-1940s sounds a little too idyllic — given the historical realities of the barbaric ways of life under zamindari rule — that may easily be forgiven in a story that tries at least to be told through the eyes of a small boy.

And, to be fair, Dhar does document some of the arbitrary injustices meted out by the paterfamilias of his own family. Whatever, the evocation of the childhood idyll has a certain lyrical quality — the countryside, the fishing, the football matches and the relatively uncomplicated friendships between children across class, community and gender divides.

The only problem in this story is the representation of the Muslim League leaders bent on tearing apart the bonds that tied the two communities together in that small patch of complex land. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that the villains of the piece — those who became local League leaders — were all some kind of ‘vassals’ of the Dhar zamindari and at least some of them had suffered indignities at the hands of the zamindars, even in this little tale. We are not talking here of the monumental decades-old exploitation and repression that soured relationships between Hindu zamindars and Muslim tenants. Given that, the injustice the narrative does to these villains is much greater.

In that, and other senses, this is just a memoir. It is not really a bigger-picture chronicle, let alone a history of some sort of life in Bengal, divided or undivided. And, to be fair once more, no such claim is made. It is a story well told — its strengths losing nothing from the simplicity of the narration and the by and large understated language.

Suhit Sen is a Kolkata-based writer