In Rimli Sengupta’s A Lost People’s Archive, a book that insistently segues between fact and fiction, the unnamed narrator describes the Partition of India, on the west and the east, as two separate wounds, with very different outcomes. Punjab bled in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the Radcliffe line and subsequent to the violence, the massive population exchange, and upheaval that it entailed, rehabilitation and reparations were attempted. Bengal, on the other hand experienced a delayed response. While many families from what now is Bangladesh, moved to India in the early months of 1948, the massacres of 1950 in East Pakistan forced hordes of those who had chosen to stay to flee across the border as refugees.

“These millions, brutalised and dispossessed like the west-gash refugees two years before, now arrived in India with its sympathy capital over spent. No crisp camps for them, no planned cities. Delhi insisted they had to go back, even though it was obvious that they could not. Trains disgorged them daily at Sealdah by the thousands. They swarmed Calcutta streets and its outskirts. (…) Retaliatory violence broke out against West Bengal’s Muslims and they began fleeing to East Pakistan.”

This reportage of events is perhaps not new to scholars of history, but has not received the same attention as the partition of Punjab in Indian writing in English.

The public and the domestic

Sengupta undertakes an ambitious project in this book. Starting in 1929 at Barisal, the narrative charts the journeys of Shishu, a 14-year old revolutionary, the youngest to be sentenced for a political murder, and his childhood friend, 16-year old Noni, on the cusp of womanhood, immersed in the world of literature and poetry, soon to be married away into a new life, not of her choosing. Their story begins at a time when the anti-colonial struggle was sweeping over the subcontinent, shaping itself into multiple forms of resistance.

While Shishu occupies an obviously public space within the overtly political discourse of nation and
nation-building, Noni takes the reader into domestic and familial spaces, both pre- and post-partition, connecting the personal to the public, focusing on the struggles of refugee families and the heartache of the loss of home and homeland. From the late 1920s, through the tumultuous years of the struggle for independence, and into the post-independence socio-cultural and political milieu of West Bengal, the rise and seeming decline of left-wing politics, the canvas is wide, even as the lens remains resolutely focused.

Often, the text reads like a lesson in history, but it is to the author’s credit that her characters never turn into mere mouthpieces for larger political forces. Bookended by Noni and Shishu’s reunion after a little over 60 years, the book uses Shishu’s notebook – part memoir, part compendium of his own poetry – as a crucial plot device, one that allows the story to move back and forth through its extensive temporal landscape, becoming a facsimile of the found notebook Sengupta credits as the point of origin of her book.

Bengal, from then to now

With history lessons in school syllabi increasingly subject to all manner of redactions, it is heartening that fiction is plugging the gaps. A Lost People’s Archive details the history of the nationalist movement, outlining the parallel strains of Gandhi’s non-violence and the reactionary spirit of those who saw violence as a given in their fight against the might of the Empire. From Chauri Chaura to the Simon Commission and the widespread opposition it engendered, Gandhi’s call for Civil Disobedience and Subhash Chandra Bose’s expulsion from the Congress, the conflicted role of the CPI and the consequent emergence of the CPI(M), the wars with China and Pakistan, armed revolts, the horrors of Morichjhanpi, and the inevitability of Naxal violence from a disillusioned generation, Sengupta filters nothing out.

Deftly, she leads the reader to acknowledge the role of literature in shaping both ideology and action. Early in the story, Shishu is thrilled at having found a copy of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s banned book, Pather Dabi (1926), the story of a secret society led by women with the aim of freeing India from colonial rule through a socialist revolution. Gender, caste, class, the book addresses all, and leaves a lasting impression on the young boy eager to prove worthy of his nascent nation. Anandmath (1882), on the other hand, immortalised for having lent the nation the clarion call of Bande Mataram against the British, leaving Shishu viscerally uncomfortable with its espousal of a divisive Hindutva ideology.

Shishu’s education happens within the confines of his incarceration, from reading books made accessible at jails – Alipore Central at Calcutta and Cellular at the Andamans – and discussions with fellow prisoners. Sengupta allows her protagonist, with his extensive reading, and his somewhat sentimental poetry-writing, to function as a critical lens on the anti-colonial movement, recognising and responding to its class, caste, and communal identity and prejudices.

Sengupta’s Noni, the narrator’s grandmother, inhabits a crucial moment in history. Having left Barisal for Calcutta in 1948, before her desh imploded from communal violence, Noni represents the first generation of upper-caste Hindu Bangal refugees, many of whom were able to acquire a Refugee Registration Certificate, circumventing the crises of subsequent generations who would be asked by hostile governments to produce tangible proof of national identity. Unlike Shishu who gets his own, increasingly strident voice, Noni’s narrative is mostly re-constructed by the narrator, in bits and pieces, from memory and through material objects. Not quite the docile Mother Goddess of the nationalist enterprise, Noni emerges as a woman conscious of the limitations placed on her and keen on keeping her family thriving, even at the cost of having her oldest child make sacrifices.

Noni’s family succeeds at assimilation but at the cost of losing their history: “We will never hear the Borishaliya tongue at home...We won’t hear the songs. There will be no nostalgia for a lost homeland. No longing for the people, the rivers, the trees left behind”, her granddaughter rues. Like any population in exile, the forced departure from the homeland necessarily causes schisms, whether visible, as in the case of Noni, or unacknowledged, as seen in her children and their children. Noni’s story, however, is not the story of all Bangal refugees. The narrative details the dehumanising conditions of camps, the deaths, the starvation, and the lack of aid and is excoriatingly conscious of the caste dynamics of the refugee situation, not just at the time of the Partition but for decades to follow.

As the narrator tries to reconstruct the past, Shishu, or rather, his spectral presence, insists that we, the people of the Indian subcontinent, have never kept archives. He points to the absence of “serious museums” on the Partition or the Bengal Famine or the Great Calcutta Killings, events that forged the path ahead for India and its neighbouring nations. While the subject of museums has been paid increasing attention to in the last few years, the text itself sets out to construct an archive, recovering stories, history, and memories, from photographs, household artefacts, pieces of documentation, and spoken accounts.

Shishu credits Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen’s cinema with having documented what was often erased from official accounts. It is also interesting to note that Shishu’s own list of writers and filmmakers who shaped his ideology and his worldview is eerily similar to that of the other auteur and chronicler of Bengal’s history – Ritwik Ghatak. Almost effortlessly, the book pulls together personal, political, and cultural history, without allowing the plot to lose its tautness. It often subverts mainstream narratives, choosing instead to focus on the outliers, the jagged edges, telling the stories of the dispossessed. The task of excavating Sengupta’s archives, therefore, becomes its own reward.

A Lost People’s Archive, Rimli Sengupta, Aleph Book Company.