I belong to a jinxed family. Jinxed, as far as research is concerned. Two Ph.D. theses got burnt in my family. It’s extraordinary, but true. The first was in 1946, my paternal grandfather’s; the second in 1971, my mother’s. Both happened in Calcutta.
The time and place are important. 1946; I also know the date. 16 August 1946 – the day that would go down in history as the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’, which happened in response to Jinnah’s clarion call for ‘Direct Action’ to protest against the Cabinet Mission Plan for the independence of India. The ‘protest’ turned out to be a day of massive riots and man-slaughter. My grandfather’s thesis was lying at that time in a shop, waiting to be bound. It was a Muslim shop in Kolutala Lane, College Street – not far from Calcutta University, where he taught Philosophy. That entire shop was burnt down, like hundreds of others that day. And thousands of people were killed. Nobody knows the exact number. It marks a watershed in our history: for the first time in India, a communal riot had taken on the character of ‘ethnic cleansing’; and it triggered off a whole series of retaliatory violence in the course of the next one year, which ultimately culminated in the Partition of India. To come back to my grandfather’s thesis, which got burnt in that very important day in India’s history, strangely enough, I came to know of it only in my early-30s. When I was completing my doctoral thesis, my father shared the story with me. But beyond the fact that it got burnt that day, I do not know much about it. I just know that my grandfather died a few years later, in 1952, when my father was very young. I am not sure whether he tried to write another thesis, what he felt about it.
But the other story – my mother’s thesis getting burnt – I knew about from much before, when I was a young girl. My mother had shared it with us – my elder sister and me – but being a very traumatic event in her life, she did not repeat recounting the story, as she did with many others.
It happened sometime in 1971. My parents were newly married then. I don’t know the exact date. But what I do know is that it was the height of the Naxal movement in Calcutta, and a police raid was imminent in our home. My father’s family, a big joint household hailing from East Bengal, was a respected family of teachers in their ‘para’ (neighborhood) – Satrapara Lane, in Dum Dum Junction, North Calcutta. None in the family were directly involved in the Naxal movement, but my father (who taught Physics at Surendranath College) had friends who were. And the family was known to have Naxal sympathies. Hence, before the raid could happen, my father thought it best to destroy certain documents and books which his friends had kept with him in safe custody. And one night, he burnt them all; in a corner of the beautiful garden that he himself maintained with the most loving care. Unfortunately, one of the things that got burnt that night, along with the “forbidden literature”, was my mother’s thesis – her almost complete thesis, in Bangla. (She was a lecturer of Bengali Literature; and was working, as far as I remember, on some aspect of Baishnab Padabali under the guidance of her legendary supervisor, Biman Bihari Majumdar). The burning was an accident, done out of sheer ignorance. But of course it was very tragic for my mother, because she did not have another copy.
I did not set out on my own Ph.D. to right this wrong or fulfil my mother’s unfulfilled dreams, or anything of the sort. I actually did not even want to be an academic. It was not my first choice. But when I did complete my thesis in 2007, I felt enormously privileged – because, mine was the first thesis in three generations to see the light of day. And I also felt very lucky, I remember, because I had access to technology that my mother did not have in 1971, and certainly not my grandfather in 1946.
These two traumatic moments in my family testify to the fact that sometimes, personal stories, family histories, can and do get tied up with national histories; that there are moments when ordinary human beings just get caught up in events that are beyond their control, or even comprehension.
This note – of people getting sucked up in history, willy-nilly, without their own agency, is in fact one of the persistent, recurrent notes, in the English novels which I analyzed for my doctoral thesis, which explores the evolution of the trope of partition from the mid-50s to the late-80s.
I started writing fiction while I was completing my thesis. One kind of writing peculiarly gave an impetus to another (though mid-wived by a creative writing workshop, it must be added). And the first story that I wrote was that of my mother – her wasted dream.
I had not started out with any ‘agenda’. In fact, I was not even sure whether I had it in me to write fiction (though I had harbored a secret desire ever since my college days). In 2005, I was just faced with this situation: I had to submit a story which, if accepted, would enable me to participate in a workshop that I really wanted to. So, I had to write a story. And fast. And the first idea that came to my mind was my mother’s story. I didn’t have to rack my brains for a story idea at all.
Looking back, I think, the reason for that was: my mother’s trauma had been deeply embedded in my mind, even though we never talked about it. Her life was defined by pain and struggle; and as she shared them with us, her daughters, they became interwoven with the texture of our lives as well -partly through the power of empathy, and partly because we were ourselves witness to some of her continuing challenges. As I grew from a girl to a teenager to a young adult, I saw my mother’s life as essentially marked by deprivation and loss. The biggest and original loss, of course, was losing her exceptionally loving father at the tender age of seven – a loss that she mourned all her life. I inherited the pain of that loss as one of my own – so complete was my identification with her. But that loss was a rude hand of fate – a destitution her entire family faced, pushing her into being the man of the house at a very young age. The loss of her thesis, however, was an entirely different matter. It “was an accident, done out of sheer ignorance”, I wrote in the previous section. But why was my father ignorant of her work? How could he be? That is the question that haunted me in my adult years.
When my mother had told us of her destroyed work, I had no idea what a ‘Ph.D’ meant. I just understood that something precious was lost. The enormity of the loss – both in the context of her past (of the way she had to earn her education battling dire poverty) and her future (the fact that she never got a chance to get back to her thesis, and in fact, had to give up her academic career altogether) – I could fathom only much later in life. After my (relatively early) marriage, actually – when I was myself struggling to balance my personal and professional lives. As to the pain of losing the thesis itself, seeing years of work being burnt to ashes – of that, I had an inkling, when I came to the writing stage of my own thesis. This coincided with the workshop I wanted to attend.
My mother’s work was lost, irretrievably. But I wanted to preserve at least the memory of that loss. To record – for posterity – that that incident had happened. I firmly believed that her life, her loss, was worth remembering.
When I finished writing her story, other stories came to me – stories of women I know, whose lives had left a mark on me. I wrote hasty sketches and saved them up in my computer, as I couldn’t write my thesis and these stories simultaneously. Two years later, I returned to them. And in the next few (with some painful gaps in the work), I wrote a collection of short stories.
When I returned to the stories after my Ph.D, my primary instinct was just to flesh out the sketches into proper stories. To complete what was already there. But 4/5 stories later, I realized that there was a pattern to them. Apart from a common Kolkata connection, these were stories of poignant failures and un-fulfilments. And the protagonists – who belonged to different professions, were defined by different ‘roles’, and were at very different stages in their lives – were all standing at a crossroads.
Like my mother’s life, I felt, theirs too was worth telling, worth remembering. What’s more – they needed to be told, because their struggles, their predicaments, were being rendered invisible behind the screen of “educated, middle-class life” – a seeming homogeneity that didn’t exist, and that normalized every form of discrimination faced by them in their domestic and personal lives. Discriminations that were all the more painful after being brought up on egalitarian ideals. Their stories (and those of women like them), as I understood it, didn’t attract the attention of the world because they were not dire enough or dramatic enough – being neither stories of spectacularly successful women who lived their dreams or idealistic ones who empowered others, nor terrible tales of sexual abuse and gender violence. They thus fell into a huge chasm of silence between these two extremes.
I felt deeply compelled to give them voice.
The archival instinct is very strong in me. In my school days, I used to maintain a diary; in my college and university years, I would list down dates of my days out with my closest girl-friends in a special note-book; a similar and longer list was maintained for my long-distance lover; I have always been the keeper of family albums; I’m the chief custodian of my bestie’s past; I file away my little daughter’s drawings in multi-colored folders… the list is virtually endless.
When it came to my creative and scholarly work – that archival instinct got expanded in scope and kind. From listing down what has happened or been done to voicing loss, taking the lid off silences and filling in gaps. In my first work of fiction, I have tried to tell the kind of stories (of women) that I don’t usually hear. And in my other life, as a partition scholar, I am now deeply invested in a project that aims to establish a Partition Museum in Kolkata – focused on the experience of Bengal – because that is a story too often subsumed in the Punjab experience of the event. Memorializing the experience of Bengal for future generations is thus a dire imperative for me.
I think everything I do is perhaps a manifestation of that predominant instinct of mine – an inordinate desire to preserve what is otherwise destined to be lost.
Rituparna Roy is an academic and creative writer based in Kolkata. An alumna of Presidency College and Calcutta University, she has taught at several institutions in Kolkata, Leiden and the Hague. She is the author of South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (AUP: 2010) & co-editor of the ICAS Volume Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010 (AUP: 2013) – both written during her time as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden. She is initiator of the ‘Kolkata Partition Museum Project’, which aims at the establishment of a Partition Museum in Kolkata. Gariahat Junction is her first work of fiction.
You can buy her book here: Gariahat Junction (Kitab International, 2020)
Her website is: www.royrituparna.com