In the Shadow of Famine
By Priyabrata Das
While the term ‘Hungry generation’ may have little to do with Bengal famine in terms of how it came to be named , the thick ‘shadow of famine’ in Bengal must have been a stark memory with which Malay Roychoudhury and his friends grew up with.
The socio-political conditions that followed in Bengal or in Kolkata and in the cities of neighboring states (Patna, etc.) must also have surely had a strong influence upon Malay and others from his generation. The following piece by Priyabrata Das, father of poet and novelist, Nabina Das, gives us an insight into both the socio-political conditions that preceded (and may have influenced) the Hugryalists, and the cultural and artistic response that came from the post-famine art-world in Bengal as an aftermath.
A little before the Durga Puja of 2006, my daughter visited us in Kolkata. She decided to go for a dinner Bengali-style in a much advertised Bengali eatery ‘Bhajahari Manna’. We were nine there together with another family consisting of a widowed mother – very close to us from the days of my political activism – and her grown up children. The eatery was an extremely cramped venue with a list of elaborate delicacies from Bengali cuisine scribbled on a blackboard hung up on the wall. No printed menu was presented. Occasionally a man got up and wiped out with a duster an item or two which have been devoured by the eaters already. Two French ladies were sitting beside us on the narrow seat, apparently hugely enjoying the food and the ambiance. Everything was perfectly Bengali. Noise, light, crowd – everything.
Suddenly, I had a desire to find out my bearing. My school days, a part of it, was spent in this neighborhood. It was 1944. The shadow of famine, destitution, the Second World War, sandbagged baffle wall, overwhelming black-out nights, etc. were in a deep embrace with Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) life. In the midst of this came the world’s most devastating famine. Five million perished within less than two years. The eatery, where all the savoring was going on in great gusto, was slated to host after a week one of the grandest Durga Pujas in Kolkata – the Ekdalia Evergreen Club’s Puja. I remembered in its place there existed a patch of triangular green fenced off with iron spikes with a small opening. There were a couple of swings and a few wooden benches. People, particularly the elderly and the children, used to spend time here in the afternoon. Then people from somewhere started pouring around in what was then called Temporary Park. Among those arrivals, some were already dead while some were dying. A few, who could manage to move, went out routinely for begging, not rice, but for ‘fyaan’, the starchy water that’s released when rice is cooked. Even well-off people by then generally had lost the generosity of parting with a fistful of rice. It was durviksha or famine, which is when beggars were driven away. Hordes of people, indeed mere processions of skeletons wrapped in skin, were moving about in search of food. An adult woman and a man were indistinguishable from secondary sexual features because there was none visible. Every day they were dying around Temporary Park. Everywhere. In all places. All of those places were reeking with a strange smell, peculiar only of the dead and drying human bodies. This smell seemed to invade the rest of the city, our existence in it. It was years afterwards that I could forget that particular smell.
Never again I saw such a sight in my seventy-odd years of life. Kolkata was roaring around with American left-hand drive open-hood jeeps, well-fed US troops, African-Americans among them, a remarkable sight at that time. Gariahat as well as other Kolkata markets were well-stocked with food. Middle- and upper-class Calcuttans were collecting their requirements with wallets full of war-time paper currency. Only, mindlessness had climbed to a horrible height. As if these deaths and destitution were of no consequence. Famine became only a word for academic discussion. Such things will pass was the attitude.
But, although small, a determined band of people were fighting this degeneration. With whatever they had, they plunged into famine relief work. Jainul Abedin’s famous drawings and paintings, Sunil Jana’s wonderful photographs, Bijon Bhattacharya’s plays, Nabanna and the others, Jyotirindra Maitra’s Nabajibaner Gaan, and a plethora of other works tried with steeled determination to stave off demoralization. Then there were the flowers of India’s humanism – Indian People’s Theater Association and Progressive Writers’ and Artists’ Association. It is true that with only relief, songs and dramas one cannot reverse this massive torrent of famine and deaths. But yet this effort galvanized into a robust movement for restoration of self-esteem, dignity, and whatever that was still good within us. It had a highly humanizing effect. Outstanding political individuals, singers, artists, photo-journalists, and all came together. Their songs, plays, poetry sessions, speeches, wonderful posters prepared inexpensively but with deep passion traveled across cities, villages, and everywhere. The great tragedy had united all shades. In the backdrop was the worldwide anti-fascist unity of humanity. It was a golden time. People were ready to give every bit of best things they had.
I did not see the Indian freedom movement-era Dundee March, Non-cooperation or Civil Disobedience movements. But what I saw in this resurgence remained the abiding resource throughout my whole life. Just when the independence movement was getting into full-throttle culminating into revolt in the Royal Indian Navy, that glorious feeling was snapped. Vicious communal riots cast its shadow all over the country. Horrible slaughter, history’s largest exodus, and the country parted into two hostile entities. The moment of glory came within attainable reach and departed without anybody regretting it. Life became mundane with basketful of convoluted philosophies. For the middle classes there no longer existed any noble agenda.
Big degree, big job, big money. The ashes of burnt dreams filled up the air.
Well, at the restaurant we visited, meanwhile the food had arrived. Lovely boneless pieces of Hilsa steam-cooked in mustard paste and mustard oil garnished with green chillies. The aroma of Dehradun rice filled the air. A glass of whiskey would have been very satisfying. What else? Memories still lingered with ‘Temporary Park’ outside wrapping itself in the night.
Priyabrata Das, more popularly known as PB Das, was born in the 1930s in a part of the Indian subcontinent where map-making was still not a brisk business until the Partition that created two countries called India and Bangladesh. Having worked as a journalist, teacher, and political worker in Shillong and Guwahati, and later as a company manager, PB Das continued to contribute for independent columns in The Assam Tribune and The Sentinel newspapers. He lived in Guwahati and passed away in Kolkata in December, 2010. His writings still live on and continue to appear in bits and pieces in journals and anthologies in India and Bangladesh.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.