regular-article-logo Wednesday, 17 April 2024

Kavita Puri’s documentary on Bengal famine uncovers ‘remarkable first-hand testimonies’

A 97-year-old Englishwoman, Pamela Dowley-Wise, had perfect recall. She was 17 when the Bengal famine struck. The elite danced and dined in restaurants, while the dead piled up in the streets. It was “a tale of two cities”

Amit Roy Published 02.03.24, 06:43 AM
Kavita Puri: Memories unearthed

Kavita Puri: Memories unearthed Sourced by the Telegraph

Terrible memories

The BBC journalist, Kavita Puri, who was praised for her 2017 radio series, Partition Voices, has talked to Amartya Sen and others who can provide eyewitness accounts of the Bengal famine of 1943. Her new five-part series, Three Million, is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. Over the years, I have written about the Bengal famine but mainly from the perspective of whether Winston Churchill, Britain’s war-time prime minister, deliberately aggravated rice shortages in order to punish the Indians he hated.


But Puri told me her documentary “is not focusing on Churchill, it’s focusing on the lived experience, uncovering remarkable first-hand testimonies of eyewitnesses and survivors — so centring the human tragedy.” She emphasised: “There is no memorial, museum, or even a plaque... to the millions who perished during the devastating... famine. After 80 years, the generation that lived through it is diminishing and these remarkable testimonies will soon no longer be able to be recorded.” Sen, who was 10 at the time, told Puri: “The phenomenon was so nasty, so disgusting and so upsetting
that I remember it was difficult to try to fall asleep without recollecting what’s happening to people.”

A 97-year-old Englishwoman, Pamela Dowley-Wise, had perfect recall. She was 17 when the Bengal famine struck. The elite danced and dined in restaurants, while the dead piled up in the streets. It was “a tale of two cities”. Dowley-Wise remembered walking to the Victoria Memorial: “There was no place you could go where you didn’t see dead bodies and vultures, it was revolting. I had nightmares and terrible dreams.”

Over the line

One of the mysteries of English cricket is why players of Indian origin have practically disappeared from the first-class game. There are certainly no equivalents of Moeen Ali, Rehan Ahmed and Shoaib Bashir, who are all of Pakistani origin. But there are also no Indians I can think of in the reckoning for a place in the English side. Players like Monty Panesar, Vikram Solanki, Ravi Bopara and Samit Patel have simply vanished like the morning mist.

However, being in the English side means you can be targeted by cricket correspondents who have not taken kindly to the defeat in India. It is natural to be disappointed when your side snatches defeat from the jaws of possible victory but I feel sorry for the way individual players are savaged if, for example, they fumble a crucial catch or have a bad game. Ollie Robinson was accused of not trying hard enough: “On this tour, which has seen him be the only player travelling with his partner, he has looked a man apart from the group as he attempts to expand his professional portfolio into the world of social media influencing and podcasting (his new partner’s domain)... [I]nsiders have wondered whether his eye has always been on the ball.”

Curry conundrum

From William Sitwell, the food critic of the Daily Telegraph, I learn that a new restaurant called Paro has opened in Covent Garden in London, describing itself as “Calcutta’s Love Affair”. It promis­es that “Every plate served at Paro is not merely a meal but a heartfelt letter from the streets of Calcutta.”

“I took a gang of friends along with me so I could do justice to the West Bengal epistle, but what transpired was more poison pen than affectionate missive,” Sitwell wrote. The bill for four, excluding drinks and service, came to £151.49 and “what emerged was just bowl after bowl of indeterminate slop,” he complained.

He added: “The bungalow dish (promised as Madras hot) was a weak and feeble mix of veg, while a king prawn curry described as ‘very spicy’ was equally powerless. The staff-railway was a heavy heave of chewy lamb chunks in a thick, stagnant pond-green grey and the chicken Naga was nothing more than the ubiquitous red-stained tandoori chicken lacking in flavour and spice. The daal was stiff and unsoupy and the rotis crumbled at the touch.” I might still give Paro a try but my sense of anticipation has been ruined by Sitwell’s withering review.

New star

In 1996, I went to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre for the first night of Ayub Khan Din’s East is East, probably the best play written in Britain in the last 50 years. On Tuesday, I was back for the first night of a musical, Bhangra Nation, which had shades of the West Side Story. I predict a bright future for its star, Jena Pandya, who plays Mary, “a half Indian girl” who is disparaged for having “white girl ideas” and not being a “real desi” by those with false notions of cultural purity.

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