I am delighted that Bijaya Ghosh’s long wait has ended. And, her novel A Child and A War is eventually published. Though she has to her credit many published short stories in Bengali as also some in English, this is her first novel published in English. This came about neither easily nor quickly. She had considerable difficulty in finding a publisher. She did have to endure pain and frustration caused by repeated rejections. After seven years of wait her Book was finally published in February 2012 by Samatat Prakashan, Kolkata, a prestigious Bengali publishing House. Samatat is ‘an inter-disciplinary’ Bengali quarterly magazine providing, as it says, ‘a common ground or meeting place where people with different pursuits can converse’. And, Samatat, basically, prefers to publish in Bengali; but it does occasionally publish in English if the work is of merit and quality. And, Bijaya Ghosh’s Book is one of such rare kind.
The person who discovered and encouraged Bijaya Ghosh is none other than Shri Arghya Kusum Dattagupta the doyen of Bengali literary magazines, the grand-old publisher of Samatat. He, incidentally, is the younger brother of one of India’s top Economists, the Late Dr. Amlan Datta (1924-2010), known for his lucid style of writing. Among Dr. Datta’s many admirers was Albert Einstein who in July 1953 wrote expressing his pleasure and appreciation on reading his work. I am happy for Bijaya Ghosh. She eventually found a worthy publisher. Both deserve to be congratulated.
A Child and A War fulfils a long felt need. It brings focus on that side of the painful issue that is often sidelined or glossed over. Most Books written about the torturous birth pangs of Bangladesh paint , exclusively, the horrific pictures of the reign of terror and atrocities unleashed by the Pakistani Military in East Pakistan; the popular upsurge and underground resistance aided by India ; and , the inevitable the political manoeuvres associated with thebirth of a new nation. But, few have written about the plight, fears and near-death-experiences suffered by the hapless minority Hindu families of East Pakistan caught in the cauldron of avenging Pakistani army, pro-establishment Muslim League and anti-establishment Awami League supporters. They were a beleaguered island unto themselves amidst a circle of fire.
Bijaya Ghosh’s Book fills that gap, to some extent.
As regards the Book; A Child and A War is a remarkably candid account of the birth pangs of Bangladesh and the unenviable plight of the hapless Hindu minority families stranded in East Pakistan , caught amidst bloodthirsty warring groups .
In Bijaya Ghosh’s Book A Child and A War, the horrific events triggered by the confusing mêlée of freedom struggle, sabotage, fear, greed and ruthless oppression are narrated as seen through the eyes of a free-spirited sensitive girl of eleven just stepping into adolescence. The girl belonging to a traditional Hindu family witness and experiences a full lifetime compressed into those ten horrid months. She has grown wise beyond her years.
Though the story is told in the first person and the events are part of history, it should not be taken as autobiographical. The little girl who witnessed and experienced the traumatic events symbolically reflects the collective experiences of all the minority Hindu families who went through the ordeal during the ten harrowing months of the year 1971.
During those horrific ten months, countless Hindu families uprooted from their homes, rendered destitute and robbed of their possessions fled from one village to another clutching their pathetic household essentials, tagging along the aged , the infirm and the little ones, crossing streams at night by stealth, seeking shelter and food at strange places . But, all the while they were under the threat and mercy of roaming bands of Razakars or the freedom-forces. They could neither live in East Pakistan the land of their birth, nor could they crossover to India the promised land. They are now refugees in the land of their birth; and have also to be weary of exploitation by the unscrupulous hordes that run the new-found but thriving business of refugee-transportation. Many young women and children perished in the cross-fire. But, the girl in the story lived to recount the travails of her family. Bijaya lives through the girl’s spirited character.
A Child and A War is remarkable for its insight into the complex and uneasy love-hate relationship between the majority Muslims and minority Hindus, perched precariously, hanging against the backdrop of the complicated socio-political unrest and civil war of 1971. It is also about how the external pressures deepen the fissures in the already brittle family bonds. The Book is enlivened with wealth of intimate details in the day-to-day living, rituals, customs and beliefs in the lives of Hindu and Muslim rural families of the then East Pakistan .The little rivalries, pride, prejudices and hypocrisies; the dynamics of their play within the family; and how they tend to colour ones outlook and decisions even in desperate circumstances lend liveliness to true-to-life events in the story. The intimate family relations, bonding, little pleasures and agonies of shared living in cramped make-shift dwellings; mutual commitments; and betrayals are pictured poignantly. The private world of dreams, fantasies and fears of a girl just awakening to life but placed in strange and stringent circumstances are painted with great sensitivity and imagination; tinted with slight humour in playful writing.
The sharply drawn sketches of countless minor characters bring to fore , how during dire times the caste- religion ridden obsessions fuelled by fear, mistrust, insecurity, greed and long suppressed hatred can take on monstrous forms and dig deep chasms between men and women who for centuries have shared a common land and its heritage . In an atmosphere poisoned by fear and mistrust, the unstable communities descend into anarchy. And, each household turns into a fortress, as it begins to suspect even the ordinary looking mild faced neighbour to be the next enemy intent on robbing its every meagre possession. The women in the family and the vulnerable young daughters are now, suddenly, the gravest source of one’s anxiety and fear. To protect them from threats and violation is now the utmost concern of the parents. The trust, the faith and mutual regard among men is dead buried.
There are also instances of ordinary men and women clutching their hearts in their hands, stepping out of their limited spheres, risking their lives to lend shelter, food and sympathy to beleaguered Hindu families.
There are of course the inevitable double-faced community leaders who go to any extent in order to gain even a slightest advantage. It is man’s inhumanity to man, at its worst
The story, though it revolves around strife, mistrust, fear, greed and violence, is truly about the triumph of human spirit. It is about very common and very ordinary people fighting the extraordinary and overwhelming circumstances far beyond the realm of their control, with rare courage and fortitude. There is a certain air of dignity and honesty around them even while they are robbed of their possessions and placed in poorest circumstances. They do eventually rise above the miseries mounting upon them, triumph over adversities and emerge smiling slightly, rather nervously, though a bit bruised and a bit tired.
Amidst the deluge of threats, insecurity and hopelessness, the two that guard and guide the family are: the gentle, thoughtful and almost self-effacing Baba the father; and Maa the mother.
The Mother is indeed the true ‘Hero’ of the story. She symbolizes the spirit of sanity, courage and sacrifice .She is the very centre of life. It is she who holds the family together and attempts to bring order into chaos. She instils hope as also a sense of purpose into an otherwise scattered family desperate for survival.
Incidentally, none of the characters bears a name. Each is known or addressed by his/her pet-name or by the relation he/she bears to the main character.
A Child and a War is a well written Book; a fruit of honesty and love. It deserves a wider readership.
I wish someone renders A Child And A War into Bangla.
Kanya in her review dated 25 April 2012 has very well summed up the story of A Child And A War. Please check the link provided in the ‘comments’ page.
The story starts in March of 1971, when after the failure of negotiation between the Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Sheikh Muziboor Rahman, the Pakistani Military cracks its whip of oppression on unsuspecting Bengali population. A Khulna- based (third largest city of Bangladesh) Hindu family takes it to be a passing phase and goes to live with an influential relative at a subdivision town, Bagerhat. Here, the political movement takes the shape of communal riot, where both theirs and their relatives’ home get looted. Unable to predict the course of event, they further move onto the countryside for a temporary respite and get trapped in a remote village- Gotapara. Here they face the organized terror. Some educated elites of the majority community decide to utilize the situation to serve their own purpose and unleash an all out offensive against the group of hapless Hindus. Another spree of looting and torture takes them to the verge of breaking point. Then the threat of forced conversion stares them in the face. At this juncture, a Muslim youth comes forward and takes control of the situation. Risking his life, he rescues the family and supports them throughout the troubled period. To evade the Razakars (Supporter of Pakistani military regime), they keep changing place and live under the protection of some very poor Muslim families. As situation turns grave, they make an attempt for India. The father could have a safe escape but the boat carrying mother and children runs in trouble. Because of a skirmish between Mukti Bahini (underground freedom army of Bangladesh) and Razakar, the border security is suddenly tightened and the boatman after extorting their last penny leaves them at a border village. For eleven days, the family leaves under charity of a total stranger and incidentally comes back with an intention to live at their own house at Khulna. Here comes the worst moment—they learn and their last asset– the ancestral house was usurped by a lady. The store of gold jewelry gets exhausted —gulping her pride, the mistress- goes to appeal at Martial-law court to claim the house.
During their journey through the unknown territory, they come into contact with various aspects of the movement; the thriving business of refugee migration, the battle between freedom forces and Razakars, finally the war which leads to the liberation of the country.
The story operates at two levels. At one level, it is the story of a Hindu family struggling for survival in a hostile environment. As the political events gather momentum, the reader gets to experience the complicated socio-political changes sparked off by the civil war; The equation of caste and community; the exploitation of uneducated poor Muslims by the educated elites; the suppressed religious and intellectual conflicts.
At another level, it is the story of the mental journey of a free-spirited girl, born in an orthodox minority community. The forced interaction with the other community opens up her mind and she instinctively realizes shortcomings of her own community and hypocrisy of her own family.
A Child And A War by Bijaya Ghosh; Samatat Prakashan; 172, Rash Behari Ghosh Avenue; Sarat Bose Road; Kolkata – 700 029 – (Feb 2012) – Rs.200/Rs.150
Tel. No. 033 – 24665590