Under my byline

Bengal against Bengali

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 21 November 2009

A boy, a family, a village and a region on the cusp of Partition

Train to India: Memories of Another Bengal
Maloy Krishna Dhar
Penguin
pp xiv + 308

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Partition seems to have cheated everyone of something. The stories of loss are many but by now generally familiar. Friendship, homeland, property, family, honour, reason, life itself broke on the hard unyielding fact. The chief narrative threads are relatively few: we know of the death trains, the missing women, the lost homes, livelihoods and so on.

In this memoir of Partition all those tropes and more recur, all in one child’s recollections of the 1940s. Maloy Krishna Dhar, who spent 30 years as an Intelligence Bureau officer in India, was born in east Bengal to a zamindar or “mahashay” family, and grew up in a time of change. He watched his family’s local influence stretch and at last break, as national politics distorted local reality. His own family members diverged along political lines; his father joined the Forward Bloc without shedding his love for the tolerant, shared Bengali culture of the delta, while his grandfather, head of the family, refused to acknowledge the possibility of change, insisting upon loyalty to the government. The father spent much of his time away from the family’s rural stronghold, while the grandfather remained in his room, nurturing his opium habit.

But family politics are only a small part of this sprawling tale squeezed into 300 pages. As a boy Dhar more or less ran free, and he writes with warmth and close recall about the many friends and accomplices from every caste and class of the village that he spent his time with. Some are women — the most memorable characters are all women — who take no subordinate role in the local violent activism against the British and in support of Subhas Bose’s INA. Naturally, the presence of fiery and defiant women requires that later the author must describe the crimes committed against them once sectarianism and anti-zamindar feeling explode into violence, pitting Bengali against Bengali.

Eventually even his idealistic father must give in, and after Partition Dhar’s family finally evacuates to Calcutta, where they live in much-reduced circumstances. The train to India of the title is both an object and a metaphor, for the journey from old Bengal to new India. Yet even in Calcutta the flow of anecdote which accompanies the author’s chaotic coming of age doesn’t cease; the city is awash with small tragedies. The tale ends with the death of Dhar’s father, and a page or two later Dhar ends the book with a brief paean to the old independent spirit of Bengal, visible again to him on the threshold of the 1971 war.

Because it ticks all the boxes as a Partition lament, one is left with lingering doubts (fair or not) about truthfulness. How can the author recall conversations in such detail? Inevitably, some encounters feel mildly glamourised, touched up perhaps to accentuate the sense of loss. One guesses also at painstaking editing, because Dhar’s freelance articles for newspapers and the “Author’s Note” to this book show him to have a much clunkier prose style in his other non-fiction. Or it may be that, writing about things close to his heart, in this memoir the author works at the peak of his ability. Either way, this is a book worth reading.

(Visit the publisher’s page for this book. Dhar has written a number of books on Pakistan, Indian intelligence and espionage, etc., which are listed on his website.)

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