I am scared of snakes, and reading Sabitri Roy’s novel, Nowhere People, translated by Adrita Mukherjee from the Bengali original, Bawdwip, filled me with dread in a number of places because there are an exorbitant number of descriptions of snakes in this book. In this novel of 287 pages, the first description of a snake appears on Page 51.

The lead family in the novel – Dhiman Chowdhury, his wife Khana, Dhiman’s younger sister Dhruba, and Khana and Dhiman’s son, Jishu, all of them refugees from East Pakistan – have just moved to a small, two-room house in a poor neighbourhood a short distance from Calcutta soon after independence. In the given scene, Khana “[stands] at the doorway of the kitchen, white with fear”, on seeing a snake “curled just inside the room, its hood raised, ready to strike.” Dhruba comes to Khana’s rescue, striking the snake dead with a log from a pile of firewood.

The next mention of a snake comes just 12 pages later, on Page 63.

Chandi is another refugee from East Pakistan, “from a small village in Dhaka district” where “[they’d] owned a house in [a] village for generations – a proper house, with a pond and some land”, but “[all] that was history now.” In India, Chandi and his family live in a hut that “was barely more than a shed, one of the many which lined the bank of [a] lake.” Chandi works as a rickshaw-puller, while his wife, Pushpa, worked as a maid in few houses.

Chandi’s hut is on low-lying land and it got flooded in the rains. One rainy evening, he returns home to find that Pushpa hasn’t cooked dinner. When asked, she replies: “How on earth am I supposed to light fire in this knee-deep water? Look, there’s a snake floating in with the floodwater! Count your lucky stars that we are still alive.”

Though that snake is a harmless, non-poisonous one which Chandi throws away with a stick, the fact that a snake has drifted into a house with floodwater chilled me to the core. There are more descriptions of snakes, making me wonder about the preponderance of these creatures in the book.

Political and ambitious

Nowhere People is a novel about refugees – people “[displaced] from their native land…the land of mighty rivers like Padma and Meghna” and “driven to search for new roots in [a] fallow land of suburbia.” People who are constantly filled with concern if “their descendants [would] ever be able to keep their great traditions alive in [an] alien land.” The frequent description of snakes is perhaps meant to show the terrifying realities that the refugees had to live each day of their lives. If the author’s motive was to leave the reader shuddering by giving them a close-up of the life of refugees, then she has clearly succeeded.

Roy’s (1918-1985) is perhaps not a familiar name to readers of literature in English. I can say for myself, I was not aware of her. It was the premise of Nowhere People that drew me to the book. In her foreword to this translation, Tanika Sarkar, retired professor of JNU, mentions that Roy was “[rarely] noticed in the Bengali literary world in her lifetime” and she has only recently been discovered as “a partition novelist, or as a woman author focusing on women’s lives.” Most of the information I gathered about Roy was from Sarkar’s foreword, which further informs us that “novels were [Roy’s] preferred genre…most built on an epic scale.” Nowhere People is ample evidence of this. There is the Partition, and the novel is huge.

The plot revolves as much around Dhiman’s family as around the several other characters that dot this work, which is both political and ambitious. In fact, Dhiman and his family acted as the medium through whom I was acquainted with the lives of other refugees. Nowhere People has been crafted as a series of interactions between Dhiman’s family and other people – both refugees as well as those with roots in West Bengal.

With characters like Tara, a little girl whose mother is in jail in East Pakistan, Seemanta, Tara’s wealthy uncle whose family has sheltered her in their house in India, Kalu Mian and Fakir Baba, Dhiman’s Muslim neighbours, Bandhan and Sagar, unemployed refugee youths, and others, Roy has created an entire world.

The Communist lens

Sarkar further states in her foreword that Roy was “[married] to a communist cadre” and “her home buzzed with meetings and discussions of Party matters.” Roy’s insight into the Community Party also makes Nowhere People an account of the rise of the Communist Party in West Bengal. A majority of characters – including Dhiman and his family – in Nowhere People are Communists.

Roy both debunks as well as perpetuates certain myths about the Communists. Nearly every character holding a Communist line of thought has been portrayed as poor, with hardly enough money to live a relatively comfortable life. There are poetry readings, political discussions, and film shows organised by characters holding Communist ideals. At several places in the novel, the character of Dhruba brought to my mind images of the character of Neeta (played by Supriya Choudhury) in Ritwik Ghatak’s film, Meghe Dhaka Tara.

On the other hand, Communists have been shown to believe in religious deities – “a suitable god to be put in the temple” – as well as auspicious days, like Akshay Tritiya. Sarkar describes Roy as “a housewife…a very retiring and reserved one…with an introvert bent of mind” and “[neither] her husband, nor the comrades who appreciated her hospitality, had time to discuss politics with her or read her work.” This facet of Roy’s persona shows up in the character of Khana, who was an artist but who had stopped creating art after her marriage with Dhiman.

In tune with today

Despite telling the story of a time soon after India’s independence, and the original work being published in 1972, there is much in Nowhere People that would find resonance in today’s times. For instance, consider this passage: “We’ve been indoctrinated from childhood to believe that the Muslim rulers of our country had perpetrated atrocities on Hindus. But it’s time to know the real history...” Here, Dhiman stresses how politics and power have a hand behind conflicts in this world.

Today’s Islamophobia finds a reply in Nowhere People as the author writes about the Islamophobia in India in the late 1940s: “‘All Muslims should go back to Pakistan’ is not a demand that comes out of the heart of India…India stands for a noble ideal, which our great men have upheld through the ages.” There are things mentioned in Nowhere People that can be witnessed even now in certain places.

For example, there is a sentence mentioning a Muslim woman named Ameena who “would be busy all afternoon rolling bidis which [would] be sold later.” This immediately reminded me of Pakur – a place in Jharkhand that shares its border with the Birbhum, Murshidabad, and Malda districts of West Bengal, where I lived till some time ago. Here, it is a norm for Muslim women in villages to roll bidis as a source of income. In another part of the novel, there is a mention of a pension scheme announced by the government “for poor old widows to retire to the holy city of Benares”. Pilgrimage schemes like these are still being run by the government.

Because of a multitude of characters and incidents, some parts of Nowhere People seem rambling and hard to follow. Also, this book could have done better with a little more editing and spellchecks. However, it goes without saying that this novel is an achievement. The political content in Roy’s writing and the manner in which she connects the various characters in their search for inclusion, acceptance, and political autonomy is praiseworthy.

Equally praiseworthy is the Mukherjee’s work in efficiently translating such a monumental work into English. Perhaps this is why we need translations. I came away from Nowhere People with this line spoken by Dhruba: “…if you want to be happy, you have to be involved in active politics – there’s no other way.” Can anything be truer than this?

Nowhere People

Nowhere People, Sabitri Roy, translated from the Bengali by Adrita Mukherjee, Stree.