Partition through ordinary eyes/Niranna : The Starved (Volume 2) Author: Aditya Sen; Sanbun Publishers; Price Rs. 395 (Book Review)
In the second volume of ‘Niranna: The Starved’, his trilogy on the partition, Aditya Sen has presented - as he has spelled out in his preface - "a macro socio-political background of how the partition of the country came about". As in Volume 1, the two main characters of his epic novel who carry the story forward are Harisadhan Majumder, a school teacher of Khulna in then East Bengal (now Bangladesh), and his son Dibyendu, an Under Secretary in the Ministry of Food in Delhi.
If Volume 1 of his book gives us a glimpse of the socio-political background of Bengal famine, Volume 2 allows us a ringside view of the high political drama that culminates in India’s independence and partition, a much bigger catastrophe than famine.
Sen resumes his story at the end of 1943 when famine is still ravaging the countryside and epidemics of cholera, malaria and smallpox are the new additions in the bag of worries that make the life of poor people unsustainable. With the assistance of the philanthropic Khulna zamindar (landowning aristocrat), Mahendra Ghose, Harisadhan, helps out the hungry and the ailing people of the town. Later, as the story progresses, this altruistic duo engage themselves in the difficult task of forging unity between the Hindus and the Muslims as Sabur Mian, the Muslim League leader of Khulna, makes fiery speeches demanding Pakistan that only helps to divide the people on communal lines.
In this troubled scenario, the stirring speeches of Subhash Chandra Bose on Singapore radio raises high expectations among the people that the INA, led by Subhash Bose and aided by the Japanese army, would soon march into India to end the tyrannical British rule. The common people can’t be blamed for being over-enthusiastic about Netaji and his INA because at that time our freedom movement was bogged down by the non-cooperating attitude of the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Separated by space and time, in Delhi food, bureaucracy and love are the three disparate subjects that encompass Dibyendu’s life. As a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Food, Dibyendu has to handle important files on procurement and distribution of food while Kalpana, his fiancée, is working on a thesis on food and hunger. But their traumatic past (Kalpana is a divorcee with a child and Dibyendu a widower) puts too many psychological barriers that they have to cross on their way to the altar.
While Dibyendu’s career as a bureaucrat is vitiated by his new cantankerous boss, Biresh Sharma, Kalpana’s worries are exacerbated by her ex-husband Brojen who starts stalking her son, Babu, probably to snatch him away as he doesn’t like the emancipated Kalpana’s lifestyle as a single mother.
As the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945 spells the end of the Second World War and the legendary Subhash Bose is reported to have been killed in a plane accident, the idea of a unified India getting freedom from British rule recedes. On August 16, 1946, Jinnah calls Direct Action Day demanding Pakistan which results in the massive Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta, killing thousands of people. Exactly a year later comes independence and a truncated India is thrown into its biggest and worst tragedy, making crores of people refugees in their own homeland and killing millions in widespread riots that neither Gandhi nor Jinnah could stop.
Harisadhan’s Khulna is now a part of the newly formed Pakistan. While his friend and mentor Mahendra Ghose departs for Calcutta, Harisadhan, with a broken heart, stays on in Khulna, still preaching unity between the two communities even as overloaded trains from Calcutta bring new faces to Khulna and old faces of the town disappear overnight. As we finish the book, we could only muse on our painful, cataclysmic past which could have been so different if only Netaji had succeeded in his noble mission or the bickering Congress and the Muslim League had stayed united in their struggle for independence.
Reading ‘The Starved’, one can’t help comparing it with Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece ‘War and Peace’, a sprawling novel that depicts minutely the social and political conditions existing before, during and after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1805. Apart from being a mirror of Czarist Russia in the early nineteenth century, at its core War and Peace is a book about people trying to find their footing in a world turned upside down by war, social and political changes and spiritual confusion.
In ‘The Starved’, Sen, too, has shown us a beleaguered people trying to find a footing as famine, riots and war turned their world upside down. If Tolstoy has enlivened his grand narrative with the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and some real-life historical characters like Napoleon and Kutuzov , Sen too has populated his book - divided into three parts and running over a thousand pages - with a large number of real and historical characters from different social strata.
Gandhi, Subhash Bose, Jinnah, Fazlul Haque, Suhrawardy and V.P Singh make their grand entries and exits on the political stage, but there are also a plethora of minor characters like Rabi Banerjee, the Khulna gazetteer; Kartik, the popular gymnast, who is so eager to join Subhash Bose’s army; and Abdul Hashim, a secular Muslim League worker who preaches amity between Hindus and Muslims and lends a helping hand for the poor and the downtrodden. They are the people who make Sen’s narrative so interesting and believable.
Obviously, Sen has blended history and politics with the minutiae of provincial life in his book to show that common people are not insignificant because they ultimately make the history alive and shape its course. This too was Tolstoy’s grand vision of history in War and Peace. No doubt it’s a herculean task and Sen has accomplished it with the flamboyance and aptitude of a master storyteller adept at his craft.
We eagerly look forward to reading the final volume of his trilogy which, I am sure, would be equally riveting as well as revealing like the first two volumes.
(The writer can be contacted at email@example.com)