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Book Review: No Return Address-Stories of Displacement and Alienation

In the preface to No Return Address: Partition and Stories of Displacement, Manjira Majumdar asks pertinent questions—Why was Bengal as a province divided several times
No Return Address Book review
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Title: No Return Address: Partition and Stories of Displacement
Compiled & Edited by: Manjira Majumdar
Publisher: Vitasta Publishing Private Limited
First edition: November 2022
Pages: 236
Price: INR 495/-

It is estimated that more than 15 million people were displaced due to the 1947 partition. The Muslims in India crossed over to both the then East and West Pakistan, while the Hindus and Sikhs moved to India. The joy of Independence turned out to be a traumatic experience for the people on both sides of the border. And the trauma of being uprooted from their homes remained with the ‘refugees’ till their last days. It is difficult for us to fathom the extent of mental and physical pain that they had had to endure. 

The infamous Kolkata riots of 1946 also witnessed a mass exodus, but those of Noakhali forced an even larger number of people to leave their homes and belongings and take shelter in Tripura, Assam and West Bengal. Even the Bihar riots led the terrified people to leave their own land for East Pakistan. Migration continued even during the 1960s on religious, economic and political grounds. The imposition of Urdu language on the Bengalis of East Pakistan angered them, ultimately leading to a bloody revolution in 1971. Hindu Bengalis in huge numbers crossed over to India again.  

Fleeing across borders, leaving behind their belongings, they faced an uncertain future in a new nation. Post-1947, the southern and northern outskirts of Kolkata grew rapidly to accommodate the very large number of displaced people from East Pakistan. The state government pleaded for help from the Centre, but financial and other aids for refugee rehabilitation in West Bengal was much less compared to what was spent on refugees coming from West Pakistan. All these incidents left a scar in the traumatized minds of the refugees, about which little was discussed in public.

Partition
The pain and trauma of Partition lingers on

In the preface to No Return Address: Partition and Stories of Displacement, Manjira Majumdar asks pertinent questions—Why was Bengal as a province divided several times by its rulers— was it to administer it better, divide its spoils among the British rulers, “or to break the spirit of a rebellious and creatively inclined community.” What did this division mean to a Bengali? How did it impact the Bengalis identity, culture and lives including those of their future generations? “How did they take the Partition and the consequent slicing off of their community? Sadly, these are the questions that haunt generations of Bengalis—their memories stowed away in trunks, pieces of documents, dying dialects, photographs or the deepest recesses of their minds.” 

Published by Vitasta, No Return Address: Partition and Stories of Displacement, is an anthology of 10 short stories and one novella, all exploring individual identities in the social set-up of one’s family, community and society as a whole.  It makes for a compelling read, starting with Shoma A. Chatterjee’s The Woman Who Wanted To Become A Tree. While reading through the story, the question ‘why?’ haunted me as it did Sheema… “Then why did she need to flee from one place to another, live almost in anonymity lest they were caught and transported for being illegal refugees?” The answer to the ‘why’ remained elusive. Ultimately, she resigned to her fate… “she needed to follow her parents and go with them wherever and whenever they were displaced…she was as rootless as her parents…” The feeling of rootlessness haunted her and perhaps that was the reason she wanted to be a tree firmly rooted to the land of her birth! She did question…why was she a refugee when she was born in India? 

Published by Vitasta, No Return Address: Partition and Stories of Displacement,
is an anthology of 10 short stories and one novella, all exploring individual identities in the social set-up of one’s family, community and society as a whole. It makes for a compelling read, starting with Shoma A. Chatterjee’s The Woman Who Wanted To Become A Tree.

Displaced people paid a heavy price socially and economically accompanied with mental trauma. Though many of us are children of displaced parents, it is impossible for us to understand the depths of despair and sadness that they had to experience. In Dibyendu Palit’s Alam’s Own House (translated by Debjani Sengupta) Alam comes back to Kolkata attached as he was to his place of birth and to his own house. His father had exchanged their house with that of a Hindu family in Dhaka. Anantashekhar, the present owner, thought it convenient to exchange the properties with Alam’s father, because both of them were feeling uneasy in the changed circumstances and environment. When Alam decided to come to Kolkata to attend a conference, he wanted to meet his lady love Raka (Anantashekhar’s daughter) and stay at his own house. But that was not to be…he was made to feel like a guest in that house and Raka had decided not to meet him. Religion overpowered love! Dibyendu Palit’s story symbolically represents the permanent divide religion had come to play…heartbreakingly painful.

Also read: Book Review: Draupadi

Each of the stories selected by Manjira Majumdar excels in capturing the vulnerability of human emotions, in which fact and fiction finds a creative balance allowing the reader to view the world in all its rawness. The book has been divided into four sections— Displacement, Alienation, Belonging and Revolution. The contributors include Aniket Mjumdar, Anjana Basu, Dibyendu Palit/Debjani Sengupta, Manjira Majumdar, Monideepa Sahu, Rimi B. Chatterjee, Saikat Majumdar, Shoma A Chatterjee and Soumitra Das.

In No Return Address, the character of Jethamoshai looms large in the background, a self-centered person who typifies the ‘negative’ character in a family. Manjira shapes him with effortless humour, bringing to mind personal interactions with similar personalities, all of whom had made West Bengal their home after crossing the borders. Maybe the trauma of separation from homeland had had its adverse psychological impact!

Manjira Majumdar, an M.A in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, has over time learnt to look at history objectively, especially the events that shaped India’s independence. She was a journalist for over three decades and now lives in Kolkata surrounded by books, window plants, choicest ceramic ware and promiscuous cats. In her own words she “hopes to write more fiction in the future.” Here is an excerpt of an interview with her….

Book review on Partition and refugees
Stream of refugees displaced during Partition

Arundhati: The title of your book ‘No Return Address’ seems to shut the door of hope. Your views. 

 

Manjira: Every time a door shuts, isn’t it that another one opens? Displacement, whether by force or by choice, due to several reasons – natural calamities,  political turmoil, wars and migration – does result in a physical exile. In Bengal, we have seen the largest displacement, due to partition (1905, 1947, and even to an extent 1971, when Bangladesh was born), and even though there are scattered writings on the partition in English, and much more in Bengali, where are the Bengali Hindu voices? I do not wish to make it into a Hindu-Muslim divide and get into the blame game, especially in today’s times, but we need to know the political context. There cannot be a single narrative. Of course, nobody wants another watershed of a partition, but if you assess modern American literature and fiction from Israel, it is about an abstraction of the issue of persecution. That is why I consider Sadaat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh as one of the finest examples of this divide, which is so futile. As if overnight, the whole subcontinent went crazy!  

 

Arundhati: Did you think of the title first, and then selected all the stories? 

 

Manjira: In a way – yes! I wrote a number of stories about my father’s family members who were refugees, yet we were living in an affluent but predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in central Calcutta. I felt the poor refugees who came away were given land in some far-flung outskirts and obscure places such as Dandakaranya or Marichjhapi…so they were neither here nor there. 

 

Our cosmopolitan neighbourhood had several other communities who gradually moved away to the UK, Australia, or Canada. So, society is always on the move. But this ‘no return’ can mean different things to different people. It can mean newer avenues or even a dead end. I selected stories that are about loss, hope and reconciliation. Sometimes, it is in the head. But I was not writing academic essays, so I amplified the subject to a human condition, or call it emotion if you will,  and selected stories from well-known writers in Kolkata, who wrote on alienation, sense of not belonging or even of belonging. .

 

Arundhati: How did you go about selecting the stories for this anthology? 

 

Manjira: I have been criticized for selecting stories to forcefully fit into the narrative, but that’s not true. I can’t force everyone to like the city, or be blind to its warts. The turbulent period of the Leftist rule finds expression in the excerpt from Saikat Majumdar’s Firebird; the question of the Anglo-Indian community’s status today is reflected in About Time, Jessica by Rimi B. Chatterjee. Should they integrate, or retain their separateness? 

 

I have included Revolution – the long short fiction – by Soumitro Das – because its protagonist has no name and it is something that can occur to any of us in a dystopian world where we are headed. But stories are also about resilience, of finding new homes, as the wanderer Pathik in The Shelf Life by Aniket Majumdar does in distant Arizona. 

 

Arundhati: How long did it take you to compile this book?

 

Manjira: The book was released at the end of 2022, the 75th year of India’s Independence. I didn’t have much time. I put it together in three months.  

 

Arundhati: Are you planning to write a sequel to No Return Address?

 

Manjira: Not really, but human interest stories about how physical conditions impact our minds interest me. Some break down, while some emerge strong and triumphant.  Life, however, continues. And that’s the beauty of life too. 

Images courtesy: Flickr

Arundhati Gupta is a Kolkata based food enthusiast, communications consultant, freelance writer and a translator.

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