Making a Shelter of Language: A Conversation with Bhaswati Ghosh

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In August 1947, the Partition of India led to millions of Muslims moving out of India to either Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan or to (West) Pakistan, and a similar number of Hindus migrated into independent India. The British used the Partition to successfully establish their “divide and conquer” strategy even after exiting the region, while fanning religious mistrust and violence. Central to the Indian sub-continent’s contemporary identity, the Partition is considered the Indian sub-continent’s Holocaust, and the largest regional human migration.

Most Partition stories are trauma-focused and from the Punjab/Northern India regions. Case in point: Tamas by Bhisham Sahni, Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bitter Fruit, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, or even Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man were stories of forced human migration, religion-based violence, and a reliving of the 1947 violence. Canada-based author Bhaswati Ghosh’s debut novel, Victory Colony, 1950, is a refreshing take on a Partition story from the eastern region. It focuses on the Bengali refugees and their rehabilitation in now-Kolkata, three years post-Independence. At its heart, Victory Colony, 1950 is a simple love story between an East Bengal refugee, Amala, and Manas, who is from an established, well-to-do West Bengali ghotee family. It’s also a story of belonging, of the need for stability, and of Amala’s search for her brother, who she loses when she arrives at Sealdah Station as a refugee. Ghosh consciously chooses not to dwell on the violence, avoiding it almost completely, creating a refreshingly hopeful story of survival and peace. Victory Colony, 1950 is a haunting story of divided India, of class and caste differences, of love and tremendous loss combined with meaningful survivorship and a search for resolution with a now-dead past.

I spoke with Bhaswati about her writing process, the research she conducted for Victory Colony, 1950, and how she framed this harrowing historical event that has marked generations of South Asians.

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The Rumpus: You successfully did three things in Victory Colony, 1950—first, you set it a few years post-Independence, making the purpose different in its urgency. Next, you highlighted the life and elasticity of East Pakistan refugees. Finally, you artfully depicted the Partition story from the Bengali perspective. How did you determine the novel’s arc via setting, time, people and their will to survive?

Bhaswati Ghosh: I have to go to the source of Victory Colony, 1950, which happened to be the character of Amala, the female protagonist, and her peculiar circumstances. In 1949–50, massive communal riots broke out in different parts of East Pakistan, including Barisal, Amala’s native home. This drove a fresh wave of refugees, mostly from the lower strata of the society, to flee to India. The distinct class component of this influx drew my attention. This was so different from the stories of the middle- and upper-middle-class Bengalis from East Bengal, as many of them already had ties to Kolkata, and found it relatively easier to make the city their home.

For poorer refugees, like Amala, the battle was an uphill one. They left their homeland under duress. Nor were they welcome in the new country. Some then set up jabardakhal (forcible occupation) or squatter colonies by taking over vacant land within and on the fringes of Kolkata. The story of Victory Colony isn’t unlike similar stories of groups of people faced with similar adversities. The collective assumes a bigger role than the individual.

Rumpus: You actively shy away from describing, revisiting, or recapping the violence that Amala no doubt experienced before she got off at Sealdah station in 1950. What made you do so, and what did you want the readers to experience?

Ghosh: I think this happened because my focus was sharply on Amala’s life after she lands in Sealdah station. As it were, she and her brother hadn’t even had the time to grieve their parents’ death when they were suddenly caught in the throes of violent riots, while heading to India with practically no belongings. Within moments of arriving in Kolkata, the siblings, too, are separated. Her immediate concerns are to find her lost brother and survive in an alien environment. I wanted the readers to experience this sense of overwhelming shock, which always brings the victim firmly into the present.

This isn’t to say the trauma she experienced before coming to India is dismissed. Later, it rears up, strangely, though perhaps not surprisingly, during an intimate moment with Manas as his newlywed wife. Trauma can often remain suppressed until it is suddenly triggered by the most innocuous of acts.

Rumpus: The novel is history in action. What was the research like and what were the key points you decided to emphasize on and the ones you omitted? And why?

Ghosh: The research was painstaking and, at times, frustrating, as I couldn’t find many credible, documented sources and had to rely on a mix of academic and anecdotal commentary on the subject. This is symptomatic of the lack of information on the partition along India’s eastern border. I look at the kind of setting someone like Amala would have found herself in—a refugee camp run by the government with the help of local volunteers, a PL (Permanent Liability) camp meant for the infirm or women without any able-bodied male member, and, finally, a colony like Bijoy Nagar or Victory Colony that the refugees themselves set up and which remained reflective of their challenges in its sparseness and also of the camaraderie that makes families out of strangers bonded by tragedy.

I also wanted to look at the government’s response, as well as the class and class issues at play, with respect to this new segment of the city’s population.

Rumpus: Which authors have influenced you in writing Victory Colony, 1950, and how their words have made your reflections more nuanced?

Ghosh: The only author who I can consciously think of in this respect is Amiya Sen, my maternal grandmother, who wrote in Bengali. A short story of hers was the seed for this novel as it propelled me to think of a young woman like Amala once she had crossed over to India after escaping a harrowing past. I am naturally biased towards her writing, but this particular story shook me in ways I hadn’t expected. Sadly, it had a horrific ending, as is the case with many Partition stories. So she really needled my attention on this subject and nudged me, figuratively speaking, to learn more and to tell Amala’s story.

Rumpus: Food is an unashamed character in Victory Colony, 1950. From muri in milk, to nimki, to batasha, and then to chalta pickle. You have created a baangal culinary world with practically no explanation, so the reader has to understand and feel the texture, taste, and color through your words. How did you choose which food(s) to write and about and why? Were there any descriptions you loved that had to be edited out?

Ghosh: You know, as I was growing up in Delhi as a second-generation East Bengali refugee, I saw how food constituted the very grammar of displacement. It seemed to be the one tenuous link one could hold on to, albeit with compromises, to one’s past. I remember the love with which my grandmother tried to recreate flavors of her Barisal kitchen. When I wrote this book, food naturally became a marker, primarily of the memory of one’s desh (native village) but also of the new palate which the refugees had to adjust their taste buds to.

I didn’t consciously choose the foods; they mostly found a flow into the scenes in question. I am thinking of one where the volunteer men are invited for an impromptu lunch in Bijoy Nagar, where they are treated to khesari daal, a type of cheap high-yield lentil, rice, and fried pumpkin peels. Refugees made the most of the scanty food resources they had, cooking vegetables like pumpkins and potatoes into curries while frying their peels as a side dish. While there were plenty of scenes that didn’t make it to the published book, luckily most of the food scenes survived.

Rumpus: You write in your blog post, “Basha, Bhasha, Bari”: “So, what is home, I wonder? Is it a place? Or is it more likely, a language?” One could apply the same concept to Amala and her search for where she could finally rest. When she finally has a place she calls her own, she sleeps for many hours. What is it about the Partition that you would like readers to learn with regard to place and to what we call home?

Ghosh: The definitions of home are as fluid as the circumstances that determine the change in the direction of one’s home. I deemed language to be that shelter, this being distinctly an immigrant experience. For Amala, however, even that sign of home is lost as the Bangla spoken in Kolkata is different from the East Bengal dialect she speaks in. Home as she knew it is lost in a tangible sense, but home is also found anew in the love and affection she receives from those around her. Victory Colony, by extension, becomes a twin image of a village in East Bengal, and although it is starkly different in terms of its spatial surroundings, it is significantly home because of its people, who speak similar tongues, cook familiar foods, and share a common history. I think this is a sentiment you, a fellow former Chittaranjan Park (a neighborhood in Delhi created for Bengalis displaced from East Pakistan) resident can relate to. We saw how thrilled our parents would be to find someone hailing from their part of Purbo Bongo or East Bengal; how they would break into their home dialect without hesitation, and how simply being in the same neighborhood brought back for them a semblance of being in their desh.

Rumpus: While Victory Colony, 1950 highlights issues around human displacement, it also emphasizes class and caste differences. Recently, in July, a high-profile case of caste-based discrimination of an engineer by his higher-caste managers at tech giant, Cisco, made headlines. While within the novel caste isn’t as obvious, there is a definite highlighting of the lower-class baangal versus the ghotis. For readers unfamiliar with the terms and what they need to look for, what compelled you to highlight this?

Ghosh: As refugees entered Calcutta in the years following Partition, there was a palpable sense of resentment among the local population. Bangaals, or those who came from the east, were looked down upon by a sizable number of Ghotis, the people in the west. Their dialects, food habits, even general attitude, all were derided. In the narrative, this tension is evident in the reactions of the government officials, the indicators Manas gets from many of his acquaintances and family members as he records them in his diary, and finally in the way his mother treats Amala. For Mrinmoyee, Manas’s mother, Amala is even more despicable because Amala is also a lower-caste woman. So, the caste and class aspects—intrinsic to the history of Partition—are inevitably at play in the book.

Rumpus: Given the Cisco case, what is still happening at the West Bengal-Bangladesh border today?

Ghosh: What the Cisco case has demonstrated is that caste continues to remain as deeply entrenched among people from the Indian subcontinent as it was in 1950 and before that. It is carried across oceans and used to discriminate against people without regard for professionalism or ethics. In West Bengal, as also in many other parts of India, there is a growing consciousness of the Dalit space both politically and in literary terms. The West Bengal government recently set up the Dalit Sahitya Academy, a literary organization that will work towards the promotion of Dalit literature and writers there. It’s heartening, as Manoranjan Byapari, who is a respected contemporary West Bengal Dalit writer, leads this board.

Rumpus: Historically, how many refugee colonies were established in Kolkata? How have they transformed over the years, given that middle-class and lower-economic-class people had separate living areas?

Ghosh: This is a fascinating subject. From my research there are around three hundred and twenty-five refugee colonies in Kolkata, and their evolution since the early 1950s is an interesting story to follow, considering the changing sociopolitical landscape of West Bengal along with the economic liberalization that came in India in the 1990s. These colonies were established as fully self-sufficient neighborhoods with schools, clinics, places of worship, and markets. However, in today’s market-driven economy and with the upward mobility of succeeding refugee generations, and with skyrocketing property prices, the character of these neighborhoods is now distinctly capitalistic.

Rumpus: Manas and Amala’s love story has a sweetness of naïve eagerness that feels so refreshingly hopeful. It also is a high- and low-class (per se) relationship, and Amala is horrified by Manas’s ability to spend money the way he does, for example to buy her a sari. There is also a quiet acceptance of his love and authority, given she is new to Kolkata, a refugee, and a woman who has lost everything. The disparities are very obvious and to an extent, troubling. And yet, you make this romance a sweet one. Tell us how you envisioned the two of them and their future.

Ghosh: To achieve that delicate balance where a love story like this would work, I wanted to establish early on that in spite of their disparities, Amala would treat Manas as an equal and not a superior. She is conscious of his role as a benefactor but from the beginning of their relationship, she holds her own and doesn’t hesitate to differ with him or to speak her mind. And this forthright, resolute side of her personality is what draws Manas to her. This equation, based on mutual respect and a shared vision for a common cause, informed the shaping of their romance. So, despite their disparate backgrounds, at some level they are friends, making their relationship click.

Rumpus: Mrinmoyee, Manas’s mother and her rejection of Amala was a clear exhibition of class and financial imbalance. This also pushes the trope of women putting other women down—a common theme in many older cultures. What was a woman’s role within wealthy Bengali families in 1950, and how did you balance the issues from Mrinmoyee’s perspective while keeping the reader’s gaze on Amala?

Ghosh: Mrinmoyee’s role as depicted in the novel is typical of women of her background. As an upper-class, elite bhadralok, she’s guided by deeply internalized patriarchal ideas that are also steeped in class and caste consciousness. As someone who has led a fairly sheltered life within the confines of her mansion, she lacks the engagement with grassroots issues, as opposed to women like Chitra Sen, the volunteer lady Manas finds a colleague and confidante in. Mrinmoyee behaves the way she does, purportedly with her son’s best interest in mind. But it’s not her story, so despite her interjections, the narrative’s focus shifts on Amala and her struggle in her in-law’s house.

Rumpus: What is the biggest misconception you think readers have about India-focused fiction related to the Partition?

Ghosh: I wouldn’t call it a misconception, but I think there is an acute lack of awareness about India’s partition on the eastern border. Most Partition literature relates to the events along the country’s western front. The stories are dramatic because of the terrible carnage and mayhem they reflect. I grew up listening to the stories my grandmother shared with us—not only her personal experiences, but from her work in the Government of India’s Ministry of Rehabilitation as the superintendent of a refugee rehabilitation home set up for women refugees from East Pakistan. There was tremendous loss on the eastern border, too, perhaps not the same in scale but definitely huge psychological and sociocultural losses, the effects of which continue to impact subsequent generations.

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Photograph of Bhaswati Ghosh by Bhupinder Singh.


Madhushree Ghosh's work has been published in the New York Times, The Rumpus, Catapult, Guernica, Longreads, Brevity, Hippocampus, Atlas Obscura, Serious Eats, The Kitchn, DAME, and others. Her essays have been Pushcart-nominated and a Notable Mention in Best American Essays in Food Writing (2020). As a woman in science, an immigrant, and a daughter of refugees, her work reflects her roots and her activism. Her food narrative memoir, Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey, is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press, in spring 2022. She can be reached at @writemadhushree. More from this author →