“Hi frs this is Afghanistan” — posted by
Susmita on Facebook on February 12
Vinegar and soy sauce from New Market, dresses from Gariahat and bhapa ilish at home in Baguiati.
The woman who had braved the Taliban was like any next-door Calcutta girl during her eight-day holiday in Calcutta in July-August.
“I had warned her against going back. But she was firm. She said she had work to do there,” her brother told Metro on Thursday evening, moments after he had learnt that Susmita Banerjee had been shot dead in Kabul.
“Afghanistan is not the same now,” she had told younger sibling Gopal Banerjee when she returned to the strife-torn country in January 2013, convinced by her husband’s belief.
Gopal desperately tried to reach her in-laws over the phone just after getting the news from a friend but he couldn’t connect.
When she spoke to her sister-in-law seven-eight days after Id (August 9), Susmita had invited them to Kabul. “When I expressed my usual apprehensions, she said things had changed there….. I’m shocked,” said Gopal’s wife Debolina.
Susmita’s husband Jaanbaaz had recently set up a garments business in Kabul.
The eldest of four siblings, Susmita was born in the Khulna district of Bangladesh in 1957. She spent her childhood with her grandparents at Chittaranjan in Bengal’s Burdwan district and went to St. Joseph’s Convent Higher Secondary School.
While in college in Calcutta, she got involved with amateur theatre. It is through theatre she came in touch with the man who would be her husband, Jaanbaaz Khan, the Kabuliwala.
“Didi would read a lot and liked Sarat Chandra but Tagore was her favourite and she would sing Rabindrasangeet…. The theatre company needed to borrow some money and it was then that she met Jaanbaaz,” said Gopal.
In one of her memoirs, Susmita had written that she got introduced to Jaanbaaz in 1986 in the Lake Town house of a co-actress in amateur theatre. She wrote that it was much later that she fell in love with Jaanbaaz and the two would date at a popular eatery in New Market.
Susmita’s parents and other members of the family did not approve of her affair and they would often keep her confined in a room to prevent her from going out with Jaanbaaz. When all attempts to dissuade her failed, Susmita’s parents told her to leave the house if she wished to continue seeing Jaanbaaz.
“Had my parents not been so insistent on wrecking our relationship, I might not have left home in a huff and married Jaanbaaz,” Susmita would write later.
From 1984 to 1995, the family was not much in touch with her but for an occasional phone call. Her husband, who had another wife in Kabul, was in Calcutta then and busy with his money-lending business in Chandni Chowk.
Susmita had gone to Afghanistan in July 1988. She fled the land of the Taliban in 1995. “She would often lament the life that many women in Afghanistan were forced to lead,” Debolina said.
In a life of many twists and turns, Susmita also dabbled in jatra, acting in Pratighat (based on a 1987 Hindi film of the same name) and playing Indira Gandhi in Priyadarshini (staged after the former Prime Minister was gunned down).
Much later, in 2003, Susmita launched her own jatra group, Ganachetana Jatra Sanstha, and staged Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou, based on her bestseller autobiography by the same name.
She staged Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou after being “disgusted” with the 2003 film Escape from Taliban, starring Manisha Koirala.
The book, which recounts her eight-year ordeal in her in-laws’ house at Sharana village in Afghanistan, had come out in 1998.
Swapan Biswas, the owner of publisher Bhasa O Sahitya, attributed all his success to Susmita. “Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou was an instant hit. It sold 125 copies in the first hour of its release on the Bengali New Year’s day in 1998 without any publicity,” said Biswas, who published three other books by Susmita later.
“I first met her before Puja, 1996, when she came to my College Street office with the manuscript for Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou,” said Biswas, who soon became the author’s family friend and would often drop in at her Jadavpur apartment. “Didi changed residence many times after that but I was always a regular visitor at her home.”
After Jadavpur, Susmita shifted to a Santoshpur housing estate off the Bypass. Then, she moved to a standalone house before buying an apartment in Nagerbazar, recalled Biswas.
In her second innings in Afghanistan, Susmita is said to have had an endearing relationship with her in-laws. They lived together in a joint family with her husband’s brothers and their wives about 60km from Kabul airport.
A trained nurse, she had joined a nursing home in Kabul. “She knew how to administer injections, she prescribed basic medicines and helped in deliveries. She said only women were allowed to treat women there,” said Debolina.
The last time Susmita left for Afghanistan, in August, she carried a lot of women’s garments for her husband’s business. She loved to shop from Gariahat — be it clothes or jewellery or stationery like diaries and pen stands. She bought a variety of Chinese sauces from New Market because in Afghanistan she felt all meat tasted the same.
“At home, she just wanted to eat fish. We had got biryani one day but it was passé for her. She preferred digging into an ilish bhapa or a chingrir malai curry,” said Debolina.
On Facebook, Susmita had a 14-year-old friend among others: her nephew, who is in Class IX at a reputable south Calcutta school. On the eve of Independence Day, she posted an Indian flag on the site and tagged Anish.
why did she have to go back there?
I met her when she was planning to have a Bengali film made on the book she wrote. She was the one to approach me for the role. She came to my place three or four days and narrated her entire life to me. I was so fascinated by her story that I kept asking her a lot of questions…. She told me so much about her life that I didn’t need to read the book. We even had the mahurat (in picture) of the film but then I don’t know what happened. After that I lost touch with her.... I’m feeling terrible. It’s tragic.
My only question is why did she go back there?
(As told to Mohua Das)
director, Escape from Taliban
I am shocked and shattered. I can’t believe that someone as lively and as strong as her, someone so selfless and always willing to stand up for what is right, has been killed so mercilessly. Even Manisha Koirala called me sometime ago, shocked and asked: ‘Dada
have you heard the news?’
I remember first meeting Susmita in September 2001. She came to my Ballygunge residence, gave me her book Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou, and asked me if I could make a
film on her life and struggles. I read the book and told her that I would make the film.
Susmita flew down to Mumbai from Calcutta and met Manisha. They would spend hours talking because Manisha wanted to know more of her to portray her better.... We tried shooting in Afghanistan, but were denied permission. Eventually we shot in Ladakh-Leh and Jaisalmer and Susmita was there with the entire crew for two whole months. She would come to the sets every day and give lots of inputs.
I last met her in 2005. I had no idea she had gone back to Afghanistan to be with her husband. During the time I knew Susmita, I had met her husband Jaanbaaz Khan too.
I remember him to be a thorough gentleman.
I remember Susmita telling me that there were so many Indian women like her who were married to Afghan men and would face such atrocities. She’s been an inspiration for so many women and I am proud that she gave her life fighting for her rights.
(As told to Priyanka Roy)
Did you know Susmita Banerjee? Tell email@example.com