Shaheen Akhtar in conversation with Samrat Choudhury
The word “historic” is prone to hyperbolic deployment to lend an air of remarkable importance to even the ordinary and mundane. There are however situations, occasions, and periods, for which this weighty word, worn from overuse, seems barely sufficient. The decade of the 1940s in Bengal is one such time. India’s freedom struggle was then on. In the midst of that, Bengal experienced the 1943 famine in which, owing in significant measure to policies pursued by the British government of Winston Churchill, somewhere around three million people died. The famine occurred during World War II, in which two Indian armies, the British Indian Army and the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose, fought on opposite sides. Two years after the end of war in 1945, Bengal and India suffered Partition. Misery was heaped on misery as riots broke out and people were uprooted from their homes of generations to become refugees.
The tumult of that period, with its backdrop of world historical events and colossal characters, is rich ground for storytelling. Yet, oddly, there is barely any literature set in those events and times in Bengali, especially from Bangladesh. Bangladeshi author Shaheen Akhtar’s book Ashukhi Deen (2018), published in Bengali, is a rare exception. In this interview, she talks about possible reasons for the lack of engagement with the pre-1971 history in her country, the blame game over Partition, her discovery of Shillong, and the serendipitous process by which she came to write the book.
Samrat Choudhury: Congratulations on your fascinating new book, Ashukhi Deen, set largely with the tumultuous backdrop of World War II and Partition. Sometimes, a writer finds a subject, sometimes a subject finds a writer. How did you come to this story?
Shaheen Akhtar: Thank you, Samrat.
It seems to me I have found the subject of this novel through what’s called “aati pati” or finding. Because the time period that is the focus of Ashukhi Deen, the 1940s of the last century, is a time outside our history and literary conversation as a topic. It was the decade of World War II, famine, riots and Partition. The colonial rulers were bidding farewell. The country’s map was being drawn anew; the subcontinent’s people’s fortunes were being decided. It is as if we suddenly leapt away from that history. Soon after the birth of Pakistan, the territory called East Bengal had to get involved in a movement against the Pakistani state. From the language movement of 1952 to the liberation war of 1971, and winning freedom, our discussion of history got limited within this time period.
For someone raised in this atmosphere, to vault over 1971 or 1952 into the tumultuous decade of the 1940s to write a novel – is usually not seen. I think the seed of my desire or inspiration to write this novel is ancient; it was sown in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park. In a documentary filmmaking course, my training film was about a refugee. It was 1989-90.
The enchanted memories of a retired widower from the banks of the Padma river…He lived in a tiny flat in Chittaranjan Park. Then and after that, in Delhi and Kolkata, I heard many stories of the Partition. After the Babri Masjid incident, I also saw those stories change. I didn’t think then that the stories of Partition were theirs alone. I was also getting involved, and I have heard some stories in my childhood about unseen neighbours. They were there, then they left. The war of 1971 blew away those stories like a devastating storm.
I don’t know if this sort of experience is the inspiration for writing Ashukhi Deen. But for many years, in my mind, I have given space to all of this. Turned it over, looked at it. Maybe that’s why in 2014 in the beginning of writing this novel, I was collecting these memories in one place – my own, and those of people who were around me in my childhood. My village home is in Comilla, and from their stories, I heard tales of people who left and those who came from Hill Tripura. Another person appeared in my thoughts right at the beginning of writing Ashukhi Deen. It was Anjali Lahiri mashi (an aunt), a communist from the 1940s from the Barak Valley region. I am especially indebted to her for the chapters (amounting to almost a third of the book) titled “Anita Seneer Smritikatha (Anita Sen’s Memoirs).”
SC: I am sadly unfamiliar with the literature of that period in Bangla. Are there other notable works set around the politics and history of the 1940s? Anything else we should be reading?
SA: A lot of literature has been written on Partition. You must know, especially in West Bengal. Sunil Gangopadhyay and Atin Bandopadhyay are foremost. They were children of refugee families. Recently in Bangladesh, Hasan Azizul Hoque wrote a novel named Aagun Pakhi. A lot of people wrote about the decade of the 1940s in West Bengal at that time. Several writers then, fresh from their experiences, wrote after arriving from West Bengal to East Bengal. However, from the standpoint of present times, the noteworthy novel discussing politics of the 1940s decade is, I think, Debesh Ray’s book Jogen Mandal, on the Namasudra leader, Jogen Mandal. There may be more, I have only mentioned what is known to me.
SC: The blame for the Partition of India and of Bengal continue to be laid by every community on the other. Even today Hindus blame Muslims for the Partition, Muslims blame Hindus, and both blame the British, who in turn blame both. How do we get past this 73-year-old blame game?
SA: I write fiction. I don’t know the solution to this. In Ashukhi Deen, I have let players from all sides of the blame game play. In truth, all three parties have a role in this. Some more, some less. But the parties conceal themselves and cheat us. Because they have taken benefits from it. Moreover, maybe they didn’t think the results of Partition would be so deadly and far-reaching. For instance, we don’t know if the troubles that the Bengalis of northeast India or the Biharis in our country endure for the division of India and Bengal even today, 73 years later, will end. Again, if the Partition had not happened – that thought is also difficult. Jinnah did not want minority status for Muslims in independent India. Looking at the state of minorities in this subcontinent, one has to be shaken awake that fortunately I am not a minority – even if selfish, this thought comes. But did the creation of Pakistan end the minority problem? Or did it make the situation more convoluted? Actually, standing in front of such a historical disaster, there is nothing to do except feel helpless.
SC: It was delightful to find Shillong in the book. Did you find a lot of connections between that town and the Khasi Hills with what is now Bangladesh?
SA: I spoke of Anjali Lahiri in the beginning. She was born and grew up in Shillong. You could say she spent her whole life in Shillong. She worked in the refugee camps in Meghalaya in 1971. She was a dedicated soul, and one year before her death (in 2012) the Bangladesh government gave her the Foreign Friends of Liberation War Honour. For my workplace, the Ain O Salish Kendra, I had interviewed Anjali Lahiri on her experience of working in the refugee camps almost two decades earlier. Since then, there was regular contact through her friendship. She was a communist from communism’s first era in this region. When I thought of writing a novel about the last decade of the 1940s, I remembered her a lot. She had just died. I was missing her. I dug out the cassette transcription of her interview. I had not noticed before…in the middle of her words she had tucked away her experience of working for the communist party.
In the Sylhet region before Partition, she talked of working during World War II and famine. From the start of the 1970s, her work in India’s Northeast portion, and the story of insecurity of Bengali residents. At times, her description of this anxiety was printing itself over her experience of working in the 1971 refugee camps. At that time, I was working on the 1971 issue, I did not pay attention to other topics. If I had paid attention, she would certainly have spoken in more detail about these topics, and turning the pages of the transcription, I felt great regret at this thought. However, I stuck to it; I had gone to Shillong during her lifetime and that continued even later. A little research, some gathering of materials – that was on. In sum, in this manner in her absence, I searched for her life. India’s Meghalaya was her abode unto death. Through that, I got an opportunity to know of the Bengali-Khasi struggle and territorial hostility in Meghalaya in the decade of 1960-70. And my thoughts made space for that in this novel. Let me say this, since I have written a novel, not a biography, therefore in constructing the chapters of “Anita Seneer Smritikatha (Anita Sen’s Memoirs)” all this was helpful material. The rest is imagination.
SC: I have always wondered why Bangladeshis seem obsessed with 1971 but uninterested in 1947. You have also noted this tendency in one of your interviews. What do you think explains it?
SA: In the beginning of the interview, I spoke of the 1971 Liberation War. In a war where a genocide occurred, it will capture the memories of the entire race – that is perhaps natural. I am speaking of literature only. Maybe because of this, our literature had to get busy in retention of that tumultuous time. Not much literary creation going past 1971 or 1952 to 1947 and Partition has happened. Whatever has happened is in imitation of West Bengal – about refugee troubles. Others perhaps kept their pens closed thinking, in this region the refugee problem born of Partition was not manifested as in West Bengal, what will we write about this subject?
In truth, the genre of ‘Partition literature’ that is there in India and Pakistan is not there in Bangladesh. That place has been taken over here by ‘Liberation War literature’. There are very few writers or poets who have not written stories and novels or composed poems about 1971.
Partition is a complex subject in Bangladesh. We have no simple story of Partition. Whether we tell it as the pain of becoming refugees or in the sense of earning a new country. In barely 22 years, Pakistani aggression and the movement against it, and finally the Liberation War – it made the earlier achievement dusty. Or it chopped the simple story into pieces. But it is almost 50 years since Bangladesh became independent, how much longer will this excuse wash? The decade of the 1940s can no longer be erased where we can see the prolonged suffering of Partition in front of our eyes.
Moreover, this turning back till 1952 of ours is restricting Bangladesh’s historical study in a tiny enclosure. We don’t talk about the 200 years of English rule. The day of the Sepoy Revolt passes by in silence. In the 1943 famine created by the colonial rulers, people of this region died like flies. Village after village became desolate. We don’t even want to remember any of that. The saddest thing is that we do not want to leave our footmarks in the movement against colonialism. We are continuously erasing it. I think that is terribly suicidal.
Shaheen Akhtar is a notable Bangladeshi author, who won the Prothom Alo Best Book Award in 2004 for her novel Talaash, (translated into English as The Search and published by Zubaan, Delhi, in 2011). Bengal Lights Books published the translation of another novel Shokhi Rongomala (Beloved Rongomala) in 2018. Her short stories have been published in Words without Border and other prestigious literary magazines. Akhtar was presented with the Sera Bangali 2014 Award for literature by India’s leading Bengali news channel, ABP Ananda. She has also received the Akhteruzzaman Elias Kothashahitya Puroshkar 2015 and the IFIC Bank Puroshkar for her novel, Moyur Shinghashon. Akhtar’s works have been translated into English, German, and Korean. In 2015, Akhtar received the highest national award for literature in Bangladesh, the Bangla Academy Literary Award, for her contributions to Bangla literature, and in 2019, she received the Gemcon Literary Award.
Samrat Choudhury is Co-founder and Executive Editor at Partition Studies Quarterly. A journalist and author from Shillong, his writings have appeared in Granta, The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, India Today, Outlook, The Indian Express, The New York Times, The Friday Times of Pakistan, and the Dhaka Tribune in Bangladesh, among others. He is the author of one novel and several short stories, many of which have been translated to other languages.