reviews and essays

Savage Seers

The hidden story of modern Bengal

By KUSHANAVA CHOUDHURY | 1 May 2016

SUBIMAL MISRA is a retired schoolteacher who lives alone in a flat on Kolkata’s southern edge. For the past five decades, he has written stories for Bengali little magazines, including Kabitirtha, Bigyapan Parba and Jari Bobajuddho. He has also written and self-published over 20 works of fiction, which, for decades, he sold himself from a stall in the little-magazine section of the annual Kolkata Book Fair. His works have no copyright, and are free for anyone to reprint. He has repeatedly said that he is against the commercial use of his work, and that he is “protishthan birodhi”—anti-establishment—meaning he opposes not just the political establishment but also the formidable publishing and media establishments in West Bengal.

Despite his prodigious output in little magazines, he has never won any awards, is not on any school or college syllabi, and is absent from major literary events. His readership is, at best, in the thousands, and comes nowhere close to that of the giants of Bengali literature, such as Sunil Gangopadhyay or Nabaneeta Deb Sen. Many Bengali readers may have never heard of him. The result has been a productive obscurity, 50 years of experiments aimed to upset and unsettle readers. “Shofolota ele ami bhoe pai, karon notun kichu korle shofolota shonge shonge ashe na,” he writes in a collection of his stories. (I am afraid of success because nothing that is truly new succeeds immediately.)

Now, due to the efforts of V Ramaswamy, his English translator, he is finally finding an audience. Ramaswamy, a third-generation Kolkatan who worked for years as a social activist in the city’s post-industrial slums, translated some of Misra’s early writings, which were published in 2010 as The Golden Gandhi Statue from America. Misra dedicates the volume “To Jean-Luc Godard, who taught me language.” He writes in a jarring, unpretty prose, heavily inspired by the French director’s cinematic tactics—such as jump cuts and montage. He eschews the easy coherence of narrative, compelling the reader to do the work of piecing together the fragments of news clippings, slogans, surveys, interviews, jingles and more that are crammed into what he calls his “anti-stories” and “anti-novels.” Most of the pieces in Golden Gandhi are like textual collages: images and utterances meant to rattle the reader’s expectations about fiction, and to jolt her out of her usual habits of thought. In the title story—or anti-story—a sharecropper’s wife dies and her corpse turns up at various places across Kolkata, until finally, a box carrying a new golden statue of Mohandas Gandhi, which has been imported from America, is opened at the city’s airport, and the smelly rotting corpse is there too, draped over the gleaming specimen of the father of the nation. In another piece, called “Uncle Seer,” an old man saves a young woman who is sick with cholera after her fellow villagers abandon her, and then demands sex in return. “If a good deed’s done, without asking a price,” Uncle Seer says, “It’s either a lie or an artful device.” The community, which had forsaken the woman, is outraged by his demand. They return as a mob and beat Uncle Seer to death.

In West Bengal, with its long history of communist activism and rule, narratives of human suffering and emancipation are a major part of the literary landscape. But Misra’s stories do not provide pity-provoking descriptions of suffering or offer ideologies of redemption, unlike what one may find in social realist literature by Bengali Marxist writers. Misra’s stories also rarely feature Tagorean themes found in the Renaissance tradition of Bengali writing, such as romantic love, family drama, or conflicts over ideals. In fact, earnest idealism—such as the belief in redemptive ideologies—is utterly absent from his work. Misra portrays instead a society that is like a hall of mirrors, where we are all implicated and all seem to be doomed.

Ramaswamy’s second installment of translations of Misra’s short fiction, titled Wild Animals Prohibited: Stories, Anti-Stories, appeared recently. The pieces in this volume, written in the 1970s and 1980s, are about sex clubs, crime scenes, slaughterhouses, incest, hunger and violence in Kolkata. Many were written at the height of the Naxalite movement, and share the impulse of the time, which Misra describes as an urge “to do away with everything.” In these stories, he presents shards of reality salvaged from the trash heap of society, his juxtapositions revealing hypocrisies between private and public life and perversions of all sorts, forcing you to look at what you don’t want to see.

In his translator’s note to Wild Animals Prohibited, Ramaswamy writes:

Misra chronicles the unceasing, relentless descent through the two decades, from the turbulent violent early-70s, through the years of collapse and stagnation. It is like showing the other face of Bengali ‘enlightenment’. Misra, an iconic and unequalled figure in the Bengali literary firmament searches unremittingly for a form and a means to express and convey the reality of the ruinous putrefaction and mass debasement he lives within.

ONE OF MISRA’S LITERARY HEROES, Franz Kafka, wrote in his “Letter to His Father” that the world seemed to him like a giant map with his overbearing father splayed across it, covering over the places where the son could not go. He had to stay on the spaces left visible, creating an existence reflected in the fragments of prose he wrote. In a sense, that metaphor can be extended to West Bengal too. Only the father is Rabindranath Tagore, and his legacy the so-called Bengal Renaissance.

In neighbourhoods across Kolkata, there are murals that look like portrait galleries, featuring a Bengali pantheon of nationalists, poets and reformers, almost all of them from the colonial era. This is how homeowners protect their turf from the ubiquitous threat of public urination. There’s Raja Rammohun Roy, turbaned and mustachioed, among the first generation of Bengalis to take to European education, and considered the father of the Renaissance. As a social reformer, Roy campaigned against sati and started a reformist Hindu sect called Brahmoism. Alongside him is Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the exemplary poor Brahmin’s son who used to study under street lights and learnt English by reading milestones as he walked from his village to Kolkata. He campaigned for social reforms, such as, allowing widow remarriage, and standardised the Bengali language, producing elementary-school primers which are still in use in West Bengal. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay usually comes next. Clean-shaven, turbaned and austere, he introduced both the novel and the idea of the nation, thereby forever conjoining politics and literature in Bengal. Rabindranath Tagore, of course, is omnipresent, his pensive, bearded visage looking like a Bengali version of Michelangelo’s God. The scion of a wealthy trading family, he was a poet, playwright, novelist, lyricist, philosopher, painter and more. He largely invented the Bengali language which is used in West Bengal today. The murals usually also include Swami Vivekananda, Subhas Chandra Bose, and many other figures from the colonial era. As products of Enlightenment ideas and colonial education, these icons are meant to represent the intellectual and cultural awakening of Bengal—from its medieval slumber and into modernity.

If you visit Kolkata today, you could be forgiven for thinking that the colonial period was a time when only Bengali giants strode the earth. But the lasting legacy of colonialism in Bengal was not just the Renaissance. It was famines, too. The Battle of Plassey, in 1757, inaugurated British rule in Bengal, and indeed in South Asia. In 1770, a mere 13 years later, a third of the population of Bengal died of starvation. Famines marked the beginning and end of colonial rule, and punctuated the period in between. Four years before the British left India, at least 3 million people died in the Bengal Famine of 1943. There are no memorials to the victims of these manmade disasters, nor, for that matter, to the thousands who died in the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946, known as Great Calcutta Killings, or the millions who lost their homes and arrived as refugees in Kolkata between 1947 and 1952, and in waves thereafter.

In the face of the Bengal Famine, the Marxist poet Sukanta Bhattacharya wrote, “Khudhar rajye prithibi goddomoy. Purnimar chand jeno jholshano ruti.” (In hunger’s realm, the world turns prosaic/ The full moon, a freshly-made roti.) The Marxist writer Samaresh Basu shot to fame by writing a short story titled “Adab” in 1946, in the aftermath of the Great Calcutta Killings, about an encounter between two poor, frightened men—a Hindu and a Muslim—in a dark lane. It is a tragic story of the proletarian victims of elite power politics. This was the Marxist aesthetic, full of feeling for human suffering, championing the noble ideals of secularism and socialism, and hopeful for revolutionary change. The Marxist cultural tradition produced crucial witnesses to the horrors of the 1940s—in artists such as Chittoprasad Bhattacharya and Somnath Hore, writers such as Manik Bandopadhyay and Subhash Mukhopadhay, and filmmakers such as Mrinal Sen. At the time, communists debated questions such as whether Tagore, who wrote short stories while collecting rents from his peasants, should be embraced by a party of the working class. The Marxists were ambivalent about the Renaissance legacy, and its complicity with the colonial project. By the 1970s, when the Maoist urban-guerrilla movement known as Naxalism was underway in Kolkata, a popular Naxalite slogan on city walls used to read, “In this education system, the more one studies the more of an idiot one becomes.” By then, many communists had openly rejected the entire legacy of the Renaissance. They dreamed of tearing down its intellectual edifice and building society anew.

Such positions seem quaint today. Over the three decades of communist rule in West Bengal, under the Left Front alliance, the Renaissance and Marxist traditions merged to create a behemoth that took over the cultural spaces of the state. In the last Left Front government, the poet Sukanta’s nephew and then chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a Marxist bhadralok in a dhoti, promised land to multinational corporations at throwaway prices in the name of development. In the village of Nandigram, the government sought to acquire land to sell to a multinational firm for a chemical hub. In March 2007, police fired upon unarmed peasants protesting this coercive seizure of land, and killed at least 14 people.

Nandigram was the Left Front government’s death knell. Today, leftists are no longer in power. The street-corner party offices of the Left Front held West Bengal together like a steel trap over the course of a generation, manned by a zealous and disciplined cadre base. Now that trap has been cracked open. Many people in West Bengal today understand that their society is in a period of transition, a set change in between scenes. The previous act is over, with no chance of an encore. But the script for the next act has yet to be written.

In this stark context, a writer like Subimal Misra can be essential to the times. His Wild Animals Prohibited coincided with the publication, last year, of Janam Mukherjee’s Hungry Bengal, which is an exhaustively footnoted account of the period from the 1943 famine to the 1946 riots, written with an intent to chart out some of the forgotten horrors of Bengal. Mukherjee has also written an afterword to Wild Animals Prohibited, where he explores the “strange affinity” between his and Misra’s work, despite each writing in a completely different discipline. They are fighting against what Mukherjee calls
the vast conspiracy of not seeing that renders many of the moneyed classes in Bengal almost completely ignorant about the more brutal aspects of the social reality that surrounds them—and which they, in fact, willfully, if blindly reproduce.

The publication of these books at the same time is fortuitous, because Mukherjee, Ramaswamy and Misra are literary kinsmen. They are part of a larger archipelago of visionaries who undermine this vast conspiracy of not seeing. While they do not belong to a single declared tradition or school, their work is distinct from that produced by the mainstream Renaissance and Marxist traditions. In fact, this distinction is most obvious when one compares the three giants of Bengali art cinema. If Satyajit Ray, the archetypal bhadralok artist, represents the best traditions of the Renaissance, and Mrinal Sen, the unreconstructed communist, articulates the arc of the Bengali Marxist tradition, then this collection of artists are the inheritors of the unclassifiable and anarchic legacy of Ritwik Ghatak.

Other writers of Misra’s generation, such as Nabarun Bhattacharya and Basudeb Dasgupta, are part of this lineage too, as are contemporary artists such as Sumitro Basak and Rajesh Deb, whose narrative art is laced with satire and malice. I would also include in this group the journalist and historian Sumanta Banerjee, who, for over three decades, has written extensively on themes such as street thugs, popular music and religious cults. Surely there are many more, who work far from the public gaze. Unlike the mainstream Marxists, they are not interested in representing the suffering of the marginalised. Rather, read together, their texts, films and paintings show an alternate image of modern Bengali society as a whole—one forged by famines, riots, Partition, and the daily barbarism that is unleashed by extreme forms of powerlessness.

JANAM MUKHERJEE WAS BORN in 1967, to an Irish-American mother and a Bengali father, and grew up in New York, intending to be a writer in the bohemian tradition of Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. After finishing high school, he hit the road, spending 15 years travelling across the United States, working odd jobs, sleeping at times under overpasses and in jail cells. By his early thirties, this vagabond life somehow led him to Kolkata. Mukherjee had grown up hearing about the Great Calcutta Killings from his father, who would wake up in New York screaming from nightmares. Members of his father’s family had been murdered during the riots in Mominpur, a predominantly Muslim, working-class area near the Kolkata Port. The son arrived in Kolkata in 1999, as an utter outsider and, in some sense, free of the legacy of the Renaissance, having never learnt Bengali from Vidyasagar’s primers or memorised the songs of Tagore. In his investigations, he found little material, literary or scholarly, on the 1946 riots, but when he began conducting interviews with witnesses of the violence they repeatedly talked about the famine which preceded it. Mukherjee’s investigations led him back to the United States to pursue a PhD in history and anthropology. Hungry Bengal is the product of more than a decade of his research.

The Bengal Famine of 1943, which killed three million people even by conservative estimates, is a well-documented event, explored most recently by the journalist Madhusree Mukerjee in her excellent 2011 history of how the British caused the famine, titled Churchill’s Secret War. Earlier, in 1981, the economist Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines, a key social-scientific study of the famine, which showed that, in many cases around the world, famine was not caused by food shortage but was rather the result of faulty distribution. In Bengal, it followed from hoarding and high prices, triggered by the diversion of foodgrains by the colonial state to feed the millions fighting the Second World War.

Kolkata was the centre of British war operations in the East, and hence the place to which the hungry from the countryside flocked, hoping to find food. The colonial government long denied that there was a famine at all. Defying wartime censors, The Statesman printed photographs showing the hundreds of thousands of starving people who came to the city. They wandered the gullies, their cries wafting in through open windows—the sound of people who were being allowed to die.

The suffering in those cries stirred the consciences of some of Bengal’s most sensitive Marxist artists, such as Chittoprasad Bhattacharya and Somnath Hore. Their stark social-realist sketches of emaciated bodies became iconic, and defined the famine in the Bengali imagination. Yet the first line of Mukherjee’s book states: “There will be no pictures of emaciated mothers with child in this book.” Such is the power of those images, however, that even Mukherjee’s publisher seems to have missed the message, for the book jacket features exactly such a photograph.

Famine, Mukherjee explains, was not a singular event to be pictorially captured, but a long-term condition that stretched from 1942 to 1946. While the death tolls from hunger ebbed and flowed during those years, the majority of Bengal’s population was in a state of perpetual hunger, and reduced to a form of degraded living. It was in this context that Mukherjee locates the 1946 killings.

At that time, Kolkata’s population was about three-fourths Hindu and one-fourth Muslim—not very different from its composition today. But back then, the city was less segregated than it is now. There were Muslim pockets in Hindu areas and Hindu pockets in Muslim areas, patchworked across the city. On 16 August 1946, the Muslim League, whose members had been elected to the provincial government in Bengal, called a rally at the Maidan, the city’s largest park, to launch a mass movement for the creation of an autonomous Pakistan. From that morning, Muslim League goons began looting, killing and burning, while Congress and Mahasabha goons were armed as well, prepared for a fight. But neither side could have anticipated the scale of the violence they started, Mukherjee writes, much less coordinated it. The riots went on for a week, and even the full force of the colonial state was unable to control them. When the violence ended, between five and ten thousand people were presumed dead; the actual figures will never be known. There were so many dead bodies that the municipality could not dispose of them. Bodies were thrown into the Ganga, burned round the clock at the cremation ground of Nimtala, buried in mass graves at the Bagmari cemetery. Finally, corpses had to be chopped up and stuffed into drains. The water pressure in the city plummeted, Mukherjee writes, until Kolkata could finally “digest its dead.”

Little has been written about the riots. Many people in Kolkata today do not know they ever took place. Mukherjee meticulously narrates the event, propelled by a controlled outrage. He tells of the depravity and complicity of the powerful on all sides, and shows how the riots should not be understood only as part of the high politics of Partition, or as an event engineered by the Muslim League, but rather in the context of the dehumanisation wrought by years of hunger. “Morals failed, fear prevailed, and a grotesque callousness deepened to the point of inhumanity,” he writes. “Hunger, in this sense provides a single hermeneutic to examine a very sick society.”

SATYAJIT RAY, THE LAST GREAT of the humanist tradition of the Renaissance, witnessed the Bengal Famine as a child, but his 1973 film about it, Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), revealed the aesthetic limits of his art. Ray’s cinematic language, which so powerfully captured the lyrical poignance of rural life in Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), his best-known film, could not do justice to the grotesque mass tragedy. Neorealism made famine look picturesque.

The true cinematic witness of those times is not Ray but Ritwik Ghatak. While Ray became internationally renowned as the colossus of Indian cinema, Ghatak completed only a handful of films, which were mostly commercial failures, before he died at the age of 50. Ray was from an august north-Kolkata line; his father and grandfather remain beloved writers of Bengali children’s literature. Ghatak’s family was from the verdant fields of east Bengal, which became East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh. For Ray, Partition was a political event; for Ghatak, it was an ontological fact.

There is an unforgettable scene in his 1961 film Komal Gandhar (E-Flat), about a theatre troupe travelling across Bengal. On the banks of the Padma river, Ghatak shows the film’s protagonists standing against the buffer at the end of a rail line. In front of them is the river, wide as a lake; on the other side is Pakistan. “My house is on the other side. I can see its outlines from here,” the hero says. “Now it is bidesh (foreign land). I will never be able to go there again.” On the river, the camera cuts to a group of singing troubadours, their freedom juxtaposed with the sense of captivity in the previous scene. And then the camera comes down the track like a rushing train and thumps to an end at the buffer. Blackout. Many of Ghatak’s films are imperfect; they are constellations of images rather than finished, cohesive narratives. What distinguishes his work is that he is capable of producing flashes of revelation, which is why he continues to be read by writers and artists as a visionary who wrote in images.

Between 1947 and 1952, millions of Hindu refugees poured into Kolkata and the surrounding countryside, squatting on empty land to make refugee colonies along the city’s edges. Ghatak’s 1960 film Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star) showed the spaces of the refugee colonies: houses of hogla leaves and bamboo, dirt lanes cut into swamps and fields, families torn asunder. In the colonies, they lived in lamplit rooms, with walls as fragile as their psychic lives had become. For Ghatak, the refugees’ predicament became a metaphor for the universal human condition, of homelessness and alienation in the modern metropolis.

BY THE MID 1960s, the generation born after Partition, especially those who were educated but excluded from the system, had run out of patience with mainstream politics. In a north Bengal village called Naxalbari, peasants had revolted and the revolt had been violently suppressed by the police. Radical communists declared solidarity with the uprising to form a breakaway faction, dedicated to organising an armed peasant revolution across India. They called themselves the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), or the Naxalites. In 1972, Misra wrote “36 Feet towards Revolution,” a story included in Wild Animals Prohibited. In it, a young man is shot in the chest one rainy morning by a stray bullet. He falls upon a headless statue, which has been decapitated by a bomb a few days earlier. A woman takes him to a hospital, and his heart is removed and placed in a paper box, which he then carries around with him. The story seizes on the direct confrontation in Kolkata between the Marxist and Renaissance traditions during the Naxalite movement. The decapitated statue is of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s, a core Renaissance figure, whose bust on Kolkata’s College Street was in fact blown up by Naxalites.

At about this time, numerous Bengali literary magazines began coming up that openly rejected the conventions of the Renaissance traditions. Produced on limited budgets, with limited reach, and attracting anti-establishment writers such as Misra, they formed a “little magazine” movement that survives to this day. Among writers, another anti-establishment movement arose known as the Hungry Generation. These were angry young men who hungered not only for food but also for sex, booze and revolution.

By the end of 1972, the Naxalite movement had been brutally suppressed by Indira Gandhi’s national government. The experience of Naxalism and its failure destroyed a generation of writers, even those who were not Naxalites themselves. An era of revolutionary possibility had been cut short by violence, leaving only a lingering sense of defeat and hopelessness. In 1977, the Left Front came to power in West Bengal. Marxists went from being anti-establishment to becoming the establishment. The Hungry Generation writer Basudeb Dasgupta, whose short stories from the 1960s are like crystallised articulations of the group’s worldview, wrote only one novel, in the 1980s, called Kheladhula, which could be translated as “Pastime” or perhaps even “Timepass.” It is about a Marxist activist in the age of Left Front rule who still has faith, still dabbles in little magazines, revolutionary musical troupes, teaching and working, and then slowly, faced with the infighting of leftist political sects and the cynicism of the society at large, gives up on his beliefs and settles into a bourgeois stalemate. It ends with a description of a scene from the Italian film-maker Federico Fellini’s La Strada, which is about a girl and her protector, who also tortures her—two characters locked in a fatal embrace. After that, Dasgupta more or less stopped writing.

In the 1980s, the Left Front government built Nandan in Kolkata, a state-run theatre for artistic films, which became part of a larger cultural complex that included the Academy of Fine Arts and Rabindra Sadan, a performance hall named after Tagore. Nandan, which was named and inaugurated by Satyajit Ray, was conceived by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee—the future chief minister and a bona-fide film buff. Its construction cemented the unity between Marxist and bhadralok aesthetics, and, in response to the theatre’s opening, Misra published an essay called “Ritwik Ghatak; A Personal Pilgrimage.” It featured the words “Rename Nandan Ritwik Sadan/ Next to Rabindra Sadan/ With Equal Weight, A Proletariat Culture” printed over and over again, bigger on each subsequent page, until the letters crowded out the rest of the text entirely.

Fueled by his love of Ghatak, Misra even organised a protest at Nandan to call for the name change. On the appointed day, a handful of his friends showed up. They shouted slogans outside the theatre, but by the time officials came out to see what the commotion was about, the group had fled.

Misra’s flirtation with politics was limited to such misadventures. Literature, not slogans, has always been his real weapon.

THE RESIDUE OF the Naxalite experience, in all its incoherent, inarticulate and absurd forms, required a new language of expression. The writer who has understood this most deeply is perhaps Sumanta Banerjee. As a journalist, Banerjee reported on the movement in the 1970s and, in the process, got caught up in the cause and joined it. He was captured by the police and imprisoned in the mid 1970s, and in 1980 he published an exhaustive account of the movement, In The Wake of Naxalbari—reissued in 1984 as India’s Simmering Revolution. Since then, Banerjee has written a series of books on curious subjects such as underworld criminals and counterfeiters, street musicians and Kalighat pat painters, jatra theatre troupes and religious cults.

His first such book, The Parlour and the Streets, was published in 1989, and surveys a wide array of “low” culture in nineteenth-century Kolkata, including jatra troupes and kobigaan, rhymes and ditties, and Kalighat pat paintings. All these forms would not be considered “culture” in Renaissance terms. For Marxists, they would be petit-bourgeois or lumpen forms, which cannot be retrofitted into a progressive ideology. But they contain a subtext on the hypocrisy of Bengali society and those in power, a street-level history of the nineteenth-century city told mostly through humour. The pat paintings used to be cheaply available around the Kalighat temple in south Kolkata, and often contained images of religious figures and current events. But most popular were the various pats about the babus, the Bengali bhadralok, and their antics. One common image showed a babu falling at his wife’s feet, after having been caught with his lover. Others showed a babu’s mistresses fighting each other with brooms, or fighting with the babu, presumably for his deceptions. These morally compromised and beleaguered bhadralok, as figures of ridicule, present a wholly different image of the Bengali elite from that found in the novels of Tagore or the films of Ray. There is an eighteenth-century street song that appears in several of Banerjee’s books: “Jal, juochuri, mithye katha/ Ei tin niye Kolikata.” (Forgery, swindling and lies/ These three make up Kolkata.)

In an email exchange last November, I asked Banerjee to explain the evolution of his thought processes between writing India’s Simmering Revolution and The Parlour and the Streets. He wrote:

My entry into the area of popular culture and popular religion of 19th-century Bengal was of course an extension of my political involvement in the Naxalite movement. My exposure to the cultural life and socio-religious beliefs of my peasant comrades (with whom I spent a brief period in villages and in jail during 1973–75) motivated me to probe deeper into forms of popular culture. Dissatisfied with the prevalent Marxist framework to understand urban street culture and popular religion, I just tried to build a different framework of analysis.

His renegade approach is most evident in Logic in a Popular Form, released in 2002, where Banerjee explored popular religion in West Bengal, and the various cults and gurus who would ordinarily have been shunned by leftist and progressive writers. In writing about characters such as the mystic Bamakhyapa, a devotee of Tara Ma who worshipped the devi with meat and booze, or Olabibi, a goddess that both Hindu and Muslim peasants saw as a protector from cholera, or the evolution of the “mother-cult” of Kali, Banerjee was veering far away from the Marxist syllabus.

As Banerjee writes in the book, among Bengali artists, it was Ritwik Ghatak alone who tried to capture “the hold of the mother-goddess on the Bengali popular psyche.” Banerjee writes about a scene in Ghatak’s 1965 film Subarnarekha, where a little girl, Sita, is wandering alone on an abandoned Word War Two airfield when she is startled by an apparition of the goddess Kali. Soon after, she realises that the apparition is not real but a bahurupi, a village performer, dressed as the deity to entertain. At one level, the sequence is innocent; at another, ominous. Banerjee quotes Ghatak on that scene: “I somehow feel that the entire human civilisation has just ‘come across’ the path of the archetypal image of this terrible mother.” Banerjee is attuned to the sense of deep time in Ghatak’s work, a mythic chronology that transcends the short duration of history that Marxists talk of, and seems to tap into the collective unconscious of Bengal.

IN THE LAST FILM that Ghatak ever made, Jukti, Tokko aar Golpo (Reason, Debate and a Story­), there is a long sequence featuring the Chhau dance, from Purulia district in West Bengal. The frenetic leaps and the rising beat of drums in the extended dialogue-free scene make the viewer feel the power of primordial myths and ways of worship. The film trails a group of social castaways through rural Bengal, led by a “finished-off” intellectual with a bottle of country liquor always in his shoulder bag, played by Ghatak himself. Made during the Naxalite movement, it is a film about failure—intellectual, moral and artistic. By the time it was finally released, Ghatak was dead.

There is a direct and didactic confrontation with Naxalism in the film. The wandering drunk and his crew find themselves captured by city-bred Naxalites hiding in the jungle. “You are the future,” Ghatak’s character says, “you are all we have.”

The Naxalites want to know if he is ideologically on their side. Has he read Deshodrohi and Lal Jhanda, Che Guevara and Mao Tse Tung? When Ghatak demurs, a rebel leader says that it is because of the failures of “worn-out, rotten, washed up, petit-bourgeois intellectuals” like him that the Naxalites have had to take up arms.

“Yes, indeed!” Ghatak replies. “Then let’s drink.”

And he does. Then, he says, “My sons, this country of ours, these thousands of years of history, and no matter how much we abuse it, this land has given birth to some of the most luminous philosophical ideas known to man. These are the weapons of villains and scoundrels, but they have to be understood to be ripped up from the earth. They won’t vanish just because you say they are not there.”

Jukti offers no vision, no way forward, just the ramblings of a drunk. But even then, Ghatak saw clearly his world and his people for who they were. Society could not be remade simply by wiping the slate clean and starting anew.

Perhaps a new language is contained in the sounds and images of that ephemeral past. By listening to those deep cadences, by seeing and reading these fragmentary visions, one can begin to sense another kind of narrative about Bengal, one that transcends the limited scope of modernist aspirations and Marxist ideology, that can accommodate the sacred and the popular, the macabre and the sublime. The work of these authors and artists is like flotsam after a shipwreck, washed up on a shore. From it, we can piece together the hidden story of modern Bengal.

SUBIMAL MISRA is a retired schoolteacher who lives alone in a flat on Kolkata’s southern edge. For the past five decades, he has written stories for Bengali little magazines, including Kabitirtha, Bigyapan Parba and Jari Bobajuddho. He has also written and self-published over 20 works of fiction, which, for decades, he sold himself from a stall in the little-magazine section of the annual Kolkata Book Fair. His works have no copyright, and are free for anyone to reprint. He has repeatedly said that he is against the commercial use of his work, and that he is “protishthan birodhi”—anti-establishment—meaning he opposes not just the political establishment but also the formidable publishing and media establishments in West Bengal.

Despite his prodigious output in little magazines, he has never won any awards, is not on any school or college syllabi, and is absent from major literary events. His readership is, at best, in the thousands, and comes nowhere close to that of the giants of Bengali literature, such as Sunil Gangopadhyay or Nabaneeta Deb Sen. Many Bengali readers may have never heard of him. The result has been a productive obscurity, 50 years of experiments aimed to upset and unsettle readers. “Shofolota ele ami bhoe pai, karon notun kichu korle shofolota shonge shonge ashe na,” he writes in a collection of his stories. (I am afraid of success because nothing that is truly new succeeds immediately.)

Now, due to the efforts of V Ramaswamy, his English translator, he is finally finding an audience. Ramaswamy, a third-generation Kolkatan who worked for years as a social activist in the city’s post-industrial slums, translated some of Misra’s early writings, which were published in 2010 as The Golden Gandhi Statue from America. Misra dedicates the volume “To Jean-Luc Godard, who taught me language.” He writes in a jarring, unpretty prose, heavily inspired by the French director’s cinematic tactics—such as jump cuts and montage. He eschews the easy coherence of narrative, compelling the reader to do the work of piecing together the fragments of news clippings, slogans, surveys, interviews, jingles and more that are crammed into what he calls his “anti-stories” and “anti-novels.” Most of the pieces in Golden Gandhi are like textual collages: images and utterances meant to rattle the reader’s expectations about fiction, and to jolt her out of her usual habits of thought. In the title story—or anti-story—a sharecropper’s wife dies and her corpse turns up at various places across Kolkata, until finally, a box carrying a new golden statue of Mohandas Gandhi, which has been imported from America, is opened at the city’s airport, and the smelly rotting corpse is there too, draped over the gleaming specimen of the father of the nation. In another piece, called “Uncle Seer,” an old man saves a young woman who is sick with cholera after her fellow villagers abandon her, and then demands sex in return. “If a good deed’s done, without asking a price,” Uncle Seer says, “It’s either a lie or an artful device.” The community, which had forsaken the woman, is outraged by his demand. They return as a mob and beat Uncle Seer to death.

In West Bengal, with its long history of communist activism and rule, narratives of human suffering and emancipation are a major part of the literary landscape. But Misra’s stories do not provide pity-provoking descriptions of suffering or offer ideologies of redemption, unlike what one may find in social realist literature by Bengali Marxist writers. Misra’s stories also rarely feature Tagorean themes found in the Renaissance tradition of Bengali writing, such as romantic love, family drama, or conflicts over ideals. In fact, earnest idealism—such as the belief in redemptive ideologies—is utterly absent from his work. Misra portrays instead a society that is like a hall of mirrors, where we are all implicated and all seem to be doomed.

Ramaswamy’s second installment of translations of Misra’s short fiction, titled Wild Animals Prohibited: Stories, Anti-Stories, appeared recently. The pieces in this volume, written in the 1970s and 1980s, are about sex clubs, crime scenes, slaughterhouses, incest, hunger and violence in Kolkata. Many were written at the height of the Naxalite movement, and share the impulse of the time, which Misra describes as an urge “to do away with everything.” In these stories, he presents shards of reality salvaged from the trash heap of society, his juxtapositions revealing hypocrisies between private and public life and perversions of all sorts, forcing you to look at what you don’t want to see.

In his translator’s note to Wild Animals Prohibited, Ramaswamy writes:

Misra chronicles the unceasing, relentless descent through the two decades, from the turbulent violent early-70s, through the years of collapse and stagnation. It is like showing the other face of Bengali ‘enlightenment’. Misra, an iconic and unequalled figure in the Bengali literary firmament searches unremittingly for a form and a means to express and convey the reality of the ruinous putrefaction and mass debasement he lives within.

ONE OF MISRA’S LITERARY HEROES, Franz Kafka, wrote in his “Letter to His Father” that the world seemed to him like a giant map with his overbearing father splayed across it, covering over the places where the son could not go. He had to stay on the spaces left visible, creating an existence reflected in the fragments of prose he wrote. In a sense, that metaphor can be extended to West Bengal too. Only the father is Rabindranath Tagore, and his legacy the so-called Bengal Renaissance.

In neighbourhoods across Kolkata, there are murals that look like portrait galleries, featuring a Bengali pantheon of nationalists, poets and reformers, almost all of them from the colonial era. This is how homeowners protect their turf from the ubiquitous threat of public urination. There’s Raja Rammohun Roy, turbaned and mustachioed, among the first generation of Bengalis to take to European education, and considered the father of the Renaissance. As a social reformer, Roy campaigned against sati and started a reformist Hindu sect called Brahmoism. Alongside him is Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the exemplary poor Brahmin’s son who used to study under street lights and learnt English by reading milestones as he walked from his village to Kolkata. He campaigned for social reforms, such as, allowing widow remarriage, and standardised the Bengali language, producing elementary-school primers which are still in use in West Bengal. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay usually comes next. Clean-shaven, turbaned and austere, he introduced both the novel and the idea of the nation, thereby forever conjoining politics and literature in Bengal. Rabindranath Tagore, of course, is omnipresent, his pensive, bearded visage looking like a Bengali version of Michelangelo’s God. The scion of a wealthy trading family, he was a poet, playwright, novelist, lyricist, philosopher, painter and more. He largely invented the Bengali language which is used in West Bengal today. The murals usually also include Swami Vivekananda, Subhas Chandra Bose, and many other figures from the colonial era. As products of Enlightenment ideas and colonial education, these icons are meant to represent the intellectual and cultural awakening of Bengal—from its medieval slumber and into modernity.

If you visit Kolkata today, you could be forgiven for thinking that the colonial period was a time when only Bengali giants strode the earth. But the lasting legacy of colonialism in Bengal was not just the Renaissance. It was famines, too. The Battle of Plassey, in 1757, inaugurated British rule in Bengal, and indeed in South Asia. In 1770, a mere 13 years later, a third of the population of Bengal died of starvation. Famines marked the beginning and end of colonial rule, and punctuated the period in between. Four years before the British left India, at least 3 million people died in the Bengal Famine of 1943. There are no memorials to the victims of these manmade disasters, nor, for that matter, to the thousands who died in the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946, known as Great Calcutta Killings, or the millions who lost their homes and arrived as refugees in Kolkata between 1947 and 1952, and in waves thereafter.

In the face of the Bengal Famine, the Marxist poet Sukanta Bhattacharya wrote, “Khudhar rajye prithibi goddomoy. Purnimar chand jeno jholshano ruti.” (In hunger’s realm, the world turns prosaic/ The full moon, a freshly-made roti.) The Marxist writer Samaresh Basu shot to fame by writing a short story titled “Adab” in 1946, in the aftermath of the Great Calcutta Killings, about an encounter between two poor, frightened men—a Hindu and a Muslim—in a dark lane. It is a tragic story of the proletarian victims of elite power politics. This was the Marxist aesthetic, full of feeling for human suffering, championing the noble ideals of secularism and socialism, and hopeful for revolutionary change. The Marxist cultural tradition produced crucial witnesses to the horrors of the 1940s—in artists such as Chittoprasad Bhattacharya and Somnath Hore, writers such as Manik Bandopadhyay and Subhash Mukhopadhay, and filmmakers such as Mrinal Sen. At the time, communists debated questions such as whether Tagore, who wrote short stories while collecting rents from his peasants, should be embraced by a party of the working class. The Marxists were ambivalent about the Renaissance legacy, and its complicity with the colonial project. By the 1970s, when the Maoist urban-guerrilla movement known as Naxalism was underway in Kolkata, a popular Naxalite slogan on city walls used to read, “In this education system, the more one studies the more of an idiot one becomes.” By then, many communists had openly rejected the entire legacy of the Renaissance. They dreamed of tearing down its intellectual edifice and building society anew.

Such positions seem quaint today. Over the three decades of communist rule in West Bengal, under the Left Front alliance, the Renaissance and Marxist traditions merged to create a behemoth that took over the cultural spaces of the state. In the last Left Front government, the poet Sukanta’s nephew and then chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a Marxist bhadralok in a dhoti, promised land to multinational corporations at throwaway prices in the name of development. In the village of Nandigram, the government sought to acquire land to sell to a multinational firm for a chemical hub. In March 2007, police fired upon unarmed peasants protesting this coercive seizure of land, and killed at least 14 people.

Nandigram was the Left Front government’s death knell. Today, leftists are no longer in power. The street-corner party offices of the Left Front held West Bengal together like a steel trap over the course of a generation, manned by a zealous and disciplined cadre base. Now that trap has been cracked open. Many people in West Bengal today understand that their society is in a period of transition, a set change in between scenes. The previous act is over, with no chance of an encore. But the script for the next act has yet to be written.

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Kushanava Choudhury is the books editor at The Caravan.

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