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Reconstructing the Bengal Partition: The psyche under a different violence By Jayanti Basu, Samya, Rs 550

Anasuya, in Komal Gandhar, reaches out to the other side of the border with the words — “Okhankar akashtao dhnoa”. The visual of her looking across the river is juxtaposed with that of a train approaching a stone barrier — a collision about to happen any moment, like something about to explode, heightened by the intense chant of “dohai ali” in the background. This scene is one of Ritwik Ghatak’s masterstrokes. It stirs something inside, something one cannot quite explain.

In the book, Reconstructing the Bengal Partition, Jayanti Basu has searched the depths of the human psyche to fish out what little of this inexplicable ‘something’ can be explained through psychoanalysis. Although her discussion focuses on one particular historical event, it is actually much more than that — it is the beginning of a quest to understand, or decipher, such layered words as pain, memory, fear, longing, rootlessness and nostalgia. Basu generously explains the methods she has employed to decode the interviews of people displaced by the partition of Bengal and of those who experienced it as a distant event. By analysing a collection of such interviews, she has explored the psychological impact of this unique and complex “trauma” on the collective as well as the individual psyche.

Basu, one might say, has responded to a challenge through this book. In the introduction, she recounts her childhood experience of interacting with her parents and relatives who were displaced by the Partition. She, born and brought up in Calcutta, had never been to Chandpur or Kumilla, from where her parents hailed. Whenever they spoke of their “true home”, she would fail to relate to the emotion, and would be chided by her parents — “Kisui bojhos na (you understand nothing)”. Later, when she was working for a project of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, she came to interview some refugees. “I was swept off my cool certainty,” she says, when her first interviewee told her, “I can tell you all, but you will not understand.” The echo of the rebuke she received as a child was not lost on her, neither was this leitmotif of an incomprehension that punctuates the various narratives of the Partition.

The story of Basu’s family, like those of many other families scattered across both sides of the Bangladesh border, contains the curious reality of the coexistence of two different homelands. As Basu points out, “I shall never understand them, because they belong not only to a different generation, but to a different species as well. They come from another ‘land’; their ‘home’ is foreign to me.”

But Basu did not leave it at that; she decided to make an effort to understand — “I embark upon the task of understanding the memory of Partition, not Partition per se.” She has carefully chosen the people she interviews in this process of trying to understand. She relies on the “autobiographical memory” of a particular class of individuals — Hindu, middle-class bhadralok — of a particular age (all her respondents are above the age of 60). She analyses their narratives as well as their cognitive responses to understand the subtexts and the psychological overtones.

Basu has given detailed and sound reasons for her choice of respondents. But one cannot help noticing that her interviewees are similar in age and class to her parents. Their recollections of Partition must have, every now and then, echoed the stories and anecdotes Basu heard in her childhood. One wonders whether behind this starkly level-headed treatise hides Basu’s desire to understand her parents, her search for a “true home” which she never had and never even cared for.

Narratives, through which Basu searches for the psychological truth, are “the truth constructed at the moment of narration: a truth grown out of the ‘true’ experience, but by all probability, different from it.” Therefore, even though this book is an investigation of the psychological history of Partition, it contains a fictional subjectivity. The author acknowledges this too — “I sailed into their subjective space with my own subjectivity.” So, this reconstruction of the Partition does not follow the conventions of history writing. It rather moves away from it when it wants to avoid “a too determined search for answers in a well-researched and well-organized narration of a sequence of events,” or when it fears that “stereotypical generalizations about ‘trauma’ may end up with psychologically superficial formulations”. The subjective ambiguity of the author’s analysis, therefore, opens various doors leading to less visited areas of the human mind.

Basu views the partition of Bengal as “soft violence” — as opposed to the more gruesome violence in Punjab. Almost none of her respondents had to flee his homeland because of a violent attack. However, like the dog in which “experimental neurosis” was generated through the use of conflicting stimuli, this kind of soft violence does not hurt the body but jeopardizes the familiar world. It caused the trauma of displacement, of being uprooted, which continues to haunt the two Bengals. There was intense interest and sensitivity to Partition research around the time when our country completed 50 years of independence. We, indeed, have not yet solved “the Partition riddle” since there is no “satisfactory sense of closure”.

Basu’s psychoanalysis presents so many different perspectives that one may feel lost sometimes, yet hugely enriched. Simple observations intrigue the reader. For example, people narrating memories of the lost homeland often describe an idyllic scene of nature because they have migrated from a rural area to an urban space. Basu, therefore, asserts that objectivity of experiences can be questioned — “Partition means what Partition is in one’s mind’s mirror.”