The lake’s blue-green expanse soothed Amala’s limbs…She hadn’t been so close to water since the time she visited the Dakshineshwar temple with Chitra… Amala looked at Manas and said “Dhonnobad,” softly. He probably had no idea how badly she missed water. Before coming to India, water permeated her like the air she inhaled. Back then, she didn’t have any good reason to imagine that there could be a time when she would have to seek water, when it wouldn’t pervade every pore of her skin like paddy soaking in perpetual wetness.

Manas took out a broken piece (of chocolate-covered macaroons, purchased from Nahoum’s) for himself and extended the entire packet to Amala. She placed it in the island (she had created between them, made of her purchases), on top of her bags. This quiet act of sharing, typical of Amala’s understated affection, permeated Manas like a beam of moonlight. It was as if it were saying to him. “Neither you provide for me, nor I for you. We merely partake of what’s available to us both.” Manas was happy with that arrangement.

This passage, describing a “day out” of two shy lovers and occurring well into two-thirds of Bhaswati Ghosh’s debut novel, Victory Colony 1951, encapsulates for me the beating heart of the narrative: a tender tale of love set in a time of violent rupture that reaffirms faith in life and equal partnership.

The tender love and the equal partnership are both unique, given the times. Let me qualify – the love story, in itself, is not unique. Romance – inter-religious, inter-class, inter-caste – is a staple of Partition fiction. But seldom is it so uniformly tender, with the emphasis resolutely more on comradeship than romantic love.

Literary déjà vu

Amala is a fisherman’s daughter from East Bengal, who, after her parents are killed in communal riots in 1947, gets saved “by the same community that was trying to butcher them” and flees to Calcutta with her brother Kaartik. She however loses him at Sealdah Station soon after they arrive, while trying to fetch some food for him, only to find him, accidentally, at the very end of the novel.

In between, through her experience, we get to see what it means to be a refugee in Calcutta in the immediate aftermath of Partition: the enormous struggle of re-building lives from scratch in refugee camps and colonies (while facing the hostility of the native “ghotis” of the city for being unwelcome “bangals” from the other side of the border); the yearning for the land forcibly left behind in East Bengal; the victimisation of utterly vulnerable women even as others of their brethren gain a new agency through employment.

All these have actually been the major themes of Bangla Partition fiction. Ghosh’s novel can be easily placed in that tradition. In fact, reading this novel is to submit to a literary déjà vu – reminded as one is of numerous other novels from West Bengal for different reasons.

- The making of “thongas” (small newspaper packets) and the taking of sewing lessons by the women of a camp in a desperate attempt at earning something, in the first two parts of Narayan Sanyal’s Partition trilogy (Bakultala PL Camp and Balmik, respetively).

- Inter-class (unfulfilled) romance in Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Arjun, where the boy is the refugee and the girl he fancies is a rich man’s daughter.

- The frantic search for a loved one in Prafulla Roy’s Keya Patar Nouko, where the protagonist Binu looks for his beloved Jhinuk, losing her after a perilous journey from Rajdiya in East Bengal to Calcutta (that happened at the end of the narrative, here it takes place at the beginning; Jhinuk is lost, Kaartik found).

But above all, it is Nita and Sanat in Saktipada Rajguru’s Meghe Dhaka Tara that echoes in one’s mind the most – Nita in particular, the refugee woman whom Ritwik Ghatak immortalised on celluloid.

Amala, despite the tragedy and destitution in her life, is actually luckier than Nita in crucial ways: she could fondly remember those she lost instead of facing the lonely hell of being exploited by her own family. And she gets, without asking it, what Nita aspired for but was denied – a lover who will be a true partner in life! Above all, she gets to live, is miraculously reunited with her lost brother, and can look forward to a life of hope with Manas; Nita dies of TB in a hill sanatorium leaving her beloved brother achingly alone.

Amala and Manas

If Amala is the protagonist of the novel, Manas is its moral centre – his diary entries functioning both as private testimonial and socio-economic commentary on an unprecedented crisis, even as it lets us in on his budding, tentative friendship with Amala that soon evolves into a different intimacy.

He is also pivotal to the plot in other ways: it is his compassion for Amala at the Sealdah Station that really sets the story in motion. The manifold initiatives he undertakes or supports to help facilitate refugee rehabilitation in the colony that Amala decides to live in also map out her journey of self-discovery as a refugee woman as she refashions her identity and forges a new self, at first with great confusion and then with increasing confidence.

It must be remembered here that, of relief and rehabilitation – the two facets of the assistance that was given to refugees – “relief” could be disposed of with half-hearted, clinical measures by the government, but “rehabilitation” entailed a far deeper involvement and engagement with refugee life and its problems. For Manas, that engagement stems from a genuinely empathetic heart, but is also, undeniably, strengthened by his interest in Amala.

These two strands – the unfolding story of the gaining of human dignity in the refugee colony on the one hand and the evolving relationship between Amala and Manas on the other – are deftly woven in the first part of the novel. But one almost loses the plot in the middle, when it is totally taken up with Manas’s tough negotiations with his family to accommodate and accept Amala as his wife and as one of their own.

Breaking the news to them (to his paternal grandfather, mother and maternal aunt) before his wedding, and the mother’s ill treatment of the lower-caste daughter-in-law after they marry, shift the focus so far away from the colony-life for a good many chapters that one tends to temporarily forget that strand. With Manas taking a brave call of striking out on his own, unable to take the daily indignity and ignominy that his wife is subjected to, the narrative comes squarely back to where it belongs – the story of the victorious refugee!

Victory Colony 1950

Victory Colony 1950, Bhaswati Ghosh, Yoda Press.