Books are portals, to other places and times, and also to other books.
I read one haunting, electrifying book about a massacre of refugees on one island; I’m transported to another haunting, electrifying book about a massacre of refugees on another island, one that is located a world away.
Blood Island takes me to The Farming of Bones. Marichjhapi,1979 to the Dominican Republic, 1937.
Both books lay bare the expulsions that lie at the heart of any nation-state, the hidden histories of people who cannot fit into either side of arbitrarily-created, ethnicised boundary lines. Refugees are those who are made homeless, hounded, incarcerated, marginalised, and at times massacred, as part of the violent mission to force a teeming and complex world into the simple, clean contours of a national map.
It is a tragic truth that refugees have been massacred and incarcerated, and continue to be massacred and incarcerated, in many places across the globe, but island massacres seem to have their own particular tenor and terror. Something is heightened in violence that takes place on an island. With both books set in landscapes that are crisscrossed by river and surrounded by sea, it matters not that one of these is a work of non-fiction, and the other a novel. It is a testament to the artistry of both authors that what we experience through their books is a sense of what it is to be driven to land’s end, with no way out but water.
“Misery won’t touch you gentle,” writes Edwidge Danticat in The Farming of Bones. “It always leaves its thumbprints on you; sometimes it leaves them for others to see, sometimes for nobody but you to know of.”
What the body and mind remember
Marichjhapi was meant to be the thumbprint that nobody knew of. It made few waves in 1979 when the massacre of either “less than ten” or “more than 10,000” (depending on whom you believe) lower-caste Hindu refugees from Bangladesh took place on the island, upon the orders of the Left Front government.
But buried stories have a way of coming forth, even if it takes a generation for them to emerge. As Danticat puts it, “I once heard an elder say that the dead who have no use for their words leave them as part of their children’s inheritance. Proverbs, teeth suckings, obscenities, even grunts and moans once inserted in special places during conversations, are all passed along to the next heir.”
Marichjhaphi turned out to have many heirs, including the journalist Deep Halder, author of Blood Island, who heard stories of the massacre from a childhood companion who had lived there and survived to tell the tale. These childhood stories – which he couldn’t make sense of at the time – played a role in turning Halder journalist, and sent him on what seems to have been a lifelong quest to understand what took place on that island all those years ago.
Halder’s oral history of Marichjhapi is constructed from the narratives of nine people who are all connected with the massacre in some way – survivors, descendants of survivors, journalists who covered the story, lawyers who fought the refugee case, and one lone government official. While this 8:1 ratio of people who condemn the massacre, to people who defend it, may seem skewed, most people who were in power at the time refused to be interviewed by Halder. Indeed, Amiya Kumar Samanta, the superintendent of police who oversaw the entire operation said to him, “Know this, only one woman died, that too due to misfiring. Will you write this truth?”
Halder does, and there it is, set in black and white, placed strategically on page 147. One truth among many other truths that are brought together in a story that unfolds like a precisely-plotted thriller. This isn’t your dadu’s oral history.
This is an oral history filled with particularities and moments that imprint themselves on the reader’s mind, with spare and evocative descriptions of the Bengal landscape that read like this: “Lush green fields; lazy, grazing cattle; trees, named and unnamed; ponds, filled and dried up.”
This is an oral history with spoilers and reveals – a small and clever one set in an early chapter, and a big and moving one that propels the emotional arc of the book dramatically forward. This is an oral history with a battle scene – set in the strange beauty of the Sundarbans – that begs to be filmed.
Bend it like the best fiction
Halder brings as many tricks of the blockbuster-writerly-trade to this tale of a long-forgotten massacre of a long-marginalised people as he can. This is something that may give a reader who is looking for a more scholarly or academic or bhodro book pause, for this is a serious subject, and a deeply tragic one.
But then, why should all these writerly strategies – of plot and arc and character and the sensational – be deployed only for Scandinavian serial killers and the dead who are at the door? After all, it is these tricks that bring readers to the page, and keep them going once they start reading a book in the first place, an act that is becoming increasingly rare. Why shouldn’t these strategies be used more often in narrative non-fiction in India to tell all those stories that have been buried in brackish waters by those in power? And what happens when they are told in this way, and when people actually begin to read stories that spend much of their time sitting in journal articles with average readerships of 3.1876?
It may be that they then lend themselves to all kinds of wider politics, as the power contained within these silenced narratives is unleashed, but this possibility of co-optation, for many different political ends, is still preferable to the silencing. By loudly ending a long-enforced quietness, in Blood Island, Halder is able to put together a tale that is at once epic and intimate, to create something rare, beautiful.
It is in his attempt to provide a scholarly and detached overview of the entire episode that he falters, in an introduction that is glaringly out of sync with the rest of the book; and again in his closing sentences, which seem to have been put together in a tearing hurry, like the last sentences you scrawl during a Board exam, before the examiner snatches your answer paper away. Both these sections beg for the answer paper to be given back, so that the author can engage in thorough revision.
Revisiting the nightmare
There is a wider significance to the book that needs far greater consideration than the one sentence it gets in the last chapter – “As nations grapple with refugee crisis, Marichjhapi should be retrieved from the dustbin of history.”
It already has been. As part of that process of retrieval, Halder has bravely and empathetically given voice to nightmares, nightmares that seem to be universal expressions of the terrors that refugees have faced, and are facing, in a world increasingly on the unwilling move. Nightmares that echo from one island to another, one book to another, one sinking boat to another, one camp to another.
“I have witnessed many horrors in my reporting life but all these years later, when I close my eyes at night, I still see the scars and the horror in her dying eyes,” we read in Blood Island.
“I looked to my dreams for softness, for a gentler embrace, for relief from the fear of mudslides and blood bubbling out of the riverbed, where it is said the dead add their tears to the river flow,” we read in The Farming of Bones.
In our current political and ecological moment, revisiting these island nightmares, unravelled “as cold fact and sweet lullaby,” may push us to at least try to find a way out of all the coming horrors.
Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre, Deep Halder, HarperCollins India.
Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are the author’s own.