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  • Two Women Writers of the Bengali Diaspora: Ketaki Kushari Dyson and Dilara Hashem-- An Essay by Sumana Das Sur [Parabaas Translation] : Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Dilara Hashem
    translated from Bengali to English by Sumana Das Sur












    Two Women Writers of the Bengali Diaspora:



    Ketaki Kushari Dyson and Dilara Hashem



     



    Sumana Das Sur




     



     



    The present paper is a part of a large
    ongoing research project of mine, in which I have been engaged over the last
    few years. I am working on the literary writings and writers of the Bengali
    diaspora, and currently I am about half-way through this work. While I have
    collected the writings of several authors, there is still some more to do in
    that respect. In the summer of 2008 I went to England for six weeks with a
    small grant from the British Council to gather relevant data and do some field
    studies. There I met and interviewed a number of literary writers and scholars,
    including Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Ghulam Murshid, and Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, who
    are originally from West Bengal and Bangladesh and have now settled in various
    parts of Britain. I saw the surroundings in which they worked and collected
    books and papers from them. The three authors whose names I have just mentioned
    are quite well-known names in both Bengals, but there are many others earning
    their livings in various other professions, either employed by others or
    running their own small businesses, who cultivate the art of writing in Bengali
    while doing their jobs. They run small cultural groups, organize poetry
    workshops or literary gatherings. It is not that the work of every such person
    is of a very high standard, but through their literary activities in the mother
    tongue they nevertheless, in some way, find their sense of identity. While
    staying in England, I established contact, by means of telephone and e-mail,
    with some Bengalis living in Continental countries such as France and Germany.
    Most of those who have some connection with the world of Bengali letters tend
    to visit Calcutta from time to time, and I have interviewed them at such times.



     



    Most recently my researches have taken me
    to the eastern seaboard of the USA, to cities such as New York, Washington DC,
    Boston, Atlantic City (New Jersey), and to Toronto in Canada. In this trip I
    have received the assistance of Shoumyo Dasgupta, Taposh Gayen, Saad Kamali and
    others, all associated with Agrobeej, a magazine of quality run by
    Bengalis settled in America. They are all engaged in different professions in
    order to earn a living, but pursue serious literary activities in the Bengali
    language. I also received sincere cooperation from Iqbal Karim Hasnu, who is
    the editor of the bilingual magazine Bangla Journal, published from
    Toronto. Dr Gouri Datta of Boston (Massachusetts) has been running the
    ‘Lekhani’ group for ten years despite her busy life as a medical doctor. The
    members of this group are well-established in different professions, but meet
    one Sunday every month out of their love for the Bengali language. An anthology
    of their work has recently been published from Calcutta. Dilara Hashem of
    Washington DC and Alolika Mukhopadhyay of New Jersey write seriously and
    regularly in Bengali and publish their books from Dhaka and Calcutta: they are
    well-known names in the Bengali literary world. There are many other Bengalis
    scattered in the USA, in New York and Chicago, in California and Texas, who
    write regularly in Bengali, or publish magazines in Bengali and keep in touch. Parabaas itself is one such example of a bilingual magazine.
    I think that if we examine and analyze the thinking of such people, as
    reflected in what they write, we can construct a map of the mental world of
    diasporic Bengalis from the second half of the twentieth century to the
    twenty-first century. That is the main objective of my research project in the
    overall sense.



     



    It was in the nineteenth century under
    British colonial rule that the window to the West was opened for the people of
    India, including the people of Bengal. A benign human face of British
    imperialism was the way it arrived as a harbinger of intellectual modernity,
    showing people how to liberate themselves from blind medieval prejudices. It
    follows that the West that was perceived as a source of knowledge and as a soil
    that nurtured freedom of thinking triggered the eager, rising curiosity of the
    people of India, especially of the Bengalis. In his essay ‘Kalantar’
    Rabindranath Tagore has explained the process beautifully thus:



     



    The coming of the
    English is an interesting event in Indian history. Socially, as people, they
    remained even further off from us than the Muslims, but as the intellectual
    messengers of Europe, the English reached us in an extensive and intensive way:
    no other foreign race has been able to come so close to us. The dynamism of the
    European intellect impacted on the mental inertia that then prevailed amongst
    us, just as rain falls on the earth from the distant sky...[1]



     



    Interest in the world beyond the seas and
    curiosity about it became so intense that they soon broke down the prevailing
    taboos and fears about crossing the so-called ‘black waters’. In the first half
    of the nineteenth century two eminent and aristocratic Bengalis sailed abroad
    and showed others the way. One of them was Rammohan Ray, the distinguished
    social reformer and the pioneer of the Brahmo movement, and the other person
    was Dwarakanath Tagore, the grandfather of Rabindranath and an extraordinary
    entrepreneur of the nineteenth century. The great zeal to visit Britain that
    manifested itself among Bengalis after Rammohan and Dwarakanath had shown the
    way was primarily to acquire higher education, usually to study medicine or
    law, or to sit for the civil service examinations in order to join the Indian
    Civil Service.







     
     
     

    [left] Ghulam Murshid's biography of Michael Ashar Chalane Bhuli (Ananda, 1995, revised ed. 1999); and [center] Heart of A Rebel Poet: Letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (OUP, 2004); [right] Gopa Majumdar's translation of Ashar Chalane Bhuli: Lured by Hope - A Biography of Michael Madhududan Dutt (OUP, 2004)









    It was with such ambitions that men like Michael Madhusudan
    Dutt, Sayyad Ameer Ali, Umeshchandra Bannerjee, Satyendranath Tagore, Satyendraprasanna
    Sinha, Taraknath Palit, and Surendranath Bannerjee went abroad. In 1878
    Rabindranath Tagore too was sent to England by his guardians in the hope that
    he might sit for the civil service examinations or at least qualify as a
    barrister before returning home. Rabindranath did not complete any course of
    formal education, but his letters home from England which were published in the
    magazine Bharati still amaze us. Europe-Prabasir Patra (‘Letters
    from Europe’) was published as a book in 1881. Here we catch a glimpse of
    English social life as it was in the second half of the nineteenth century, through
    the eyes of a seventeen-year-old Bengali youth, and the picture we get is not
    only enjoyable as literature, but also a reliable historical document.



     



    An important aspect of the Bengal
    Renaissance of the nineteenth century was the movement for female emancipation
    and the education of women. Many of the educated and enlightened Bengali men of
    the new generations wanted their wives to become their true companions in the
    fullest sense, and impelled by this feeling, started to take their wives with
    them when they went abroad. Mention should be made of Gobindachandra Datta and
    his wife Kshetramohini, who went to Europe in 1869 with their two daughters,
    Aru and Taru, who pursued the study of both English and French literatures and
    gained fame at an early age by writing poetry in English. Jnanadanandini Devi, the
    wife of Satyendranath Tagore, Swarnalata, the wife of the doctor Krishnadhan
    Ghosh and the mother of the famous Arabinda Ghosh, Suniti Devi, the daughter of
    Keshabchandra Sen and the wife of the Maharaja of Cooch Bihar, went abroad with
    their husbands and were deeply influenced by the social customs which they
    encountered when abroad. Suniti Devi attended the coronation of Edward VII in
    1902, wearing a Western costume.









    Krishnabhabini Das's book





    The most noteworthy in this stream was
    Krishnabhabini Das, who accompanied her husband Debendranath Das to England in
    1882 and spent eight years there. On the basis of her experiences she wrote the
    remarkable volume Inglonde Bangamahila (‘A Bengali Lady in England’), first
    published in 1885. In this book, the first travel book written in Bengali by a
    woman, she described with care the society she was scrutinizing, including
    rural and urban life, the relationship of the sexes, elections for the
    Parliament, and so on. The book contains some extraordinary documentation on
    Victorian England, and many original observations. The two women writers to be
    discussed in my paper, Ketaki and Dilara, could be viewed in some ways as
    successors to Krishnabhabini. All of them have related easily to their new
    environments, and like trees they have sent down roots in the new soils where
    they have found themselves. They have derived sustenance from there, which has
    borne fruit in their creations.



     



    So it is correct to say that from the last
    quarter of the nineteenth century the life of Bengalis in ‘prabas’ (meaning
    ‘abroad, away from one’s native land’) began to be reflected in literature. In
    the twentieth century, this kind of writing began to flow in numerous streams.
    Rabindranath Tagore’s travels in many countries during his long life and his interactions
    with many different kinds of people enabled him to acquire a cosmopolitan
    consciousness. This left its direct or indirect marks on his essays and lectures,
    and his dramatic and musical compositions.









    Amiya Chakravarty (left) and Buddhadeva Bose.(*)






    Among the post-Tagore poets, Amiya
    Chakravarty lived and worked in the USA for a long time and travelled all over
    the world; it is not possible to understand his creative work unless we take
    into account this extensive backdrop. Indeed it was he who introduced Tagore to
    many of the new literary movements of the West. Life ‘abroad’ has played a role
    in the work of Bengali writers such as Jyotirmala Devi, Sudhindranath Datta,
    Buddhadeva Bose, Pratibha Bose, Annadashankar Ray, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Syed
    Waliullah, Niradchandra Chaudhuri, Sibnarayan Ray, Loknath Bhattacharya, or
    Alokeranjan Dasgupta. For a long time in Bengali, living abroad or even in
    another part of the subcontinent where one’s mother tongue was not spoken was
    denoted by the general term ‘prabas’. In the second half of the twentieth
    century, with accelerated ‘globalization’, the term ‘abhibasi’ (‘emigrant’)
    came into vogue. In this period the existence of migrant Bengalis, scattered
    like clusters of foam all over the world, began to acquire solidity and denseness.
    We now use the term ‘diaspora’ about them.



     



    Khachig Tölölyan, an American academic of
    Armenian origin and a theorist of diaspora studies, goes in search of the
    origin of the term ‘diaspora’ and comments:



     



    The famed Eleventh
    Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910-11) has no entry for the
    word “Diaspora”. The 1958 edition of the same Encyclopedia identifies
    “diaspora” as a crystalline aluminium oxide which, when heated, sheds or
    scatters flakes from its surface, and thus takes its name from the Greek verb
    “diaspeirein”, to “scatter”.[2]



     



    The word ‘diaspora’ became a term of the
    social sciences even later in a gradual process. Initially the term was applied
    to ancient Greeks and Jews who had left their homelands and to Armenians who
    had done the same from the eleventh century onwards. From the end of the
    sixties Western scholars began to apply the term to all people who had left
    their native places and had spread their roots in other geographical locations.
    This concept of ‘diaspora’ acknowledges how groups of people have scattered all
    over the face of the earth and exist as minority communities in different
    countries.



     



    Literature written by South Asians from
    diasporic locations has also received international recognition, but only if it
    is written in English. ‘Indian English Writing’ has become a much-pursued topic
    in the post-colonial studies of the contemporary academic world, especially
    since Salman Rushdie got the Booker Prize. But in most seminars and symposiums
    or research papers those writers of the South Asian diaspora who have chosen to
    write in their mother tongues do not get a mention. Their existence tends to
    get obliterated from the map of diasporic writings. Even a professor of history
    and scholar like Judith Brown comments: “Literature is yet another way of
    listening to the experiences of migrant South Asians, and there is a growing
    body of work by authors of South Asian descent, writing in English outside the
    subcontinent, which provides entry into the world of diasporic South Asians.”[3] Most Western scholars do not
    seem to be aware that a more reliable entry into the inner worlds of South
    Asian migrants might be provided by the literary works they write in their
    mother tongues.



     



    As already indicated, in Bengali the
    tradition of writing ‘from abroad’ is over a hundred years old. Among Bengalis
    who have received acclaim for their fiction written in English from locations
    outside the homeland are first-generation migrants such as Amitav Ghosh,
    Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Sunetra Gupta, and Amit
    Chaudhuri who shares his time between India and England, and the next
    generation such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali. Writing in English, they do
    often deal with the lives of Bengalis living at home or abroad, or use Bengali
    details or associations to give an exotic flavour to their narratives.
    Alongside such writers there are those who continue to write in Bengali from a
    diasporic position. It is not an easy task to carry on writing in the mother
    tongue in a completely different environment and while immersed in the currents
    of a different language, but for those who do it, the task is an essential part
    of their sense of identity and self-esteem.



     



    The first serious discussions of diasporic
    writing in Bengali were done by Ketaki Kushari Dyson in two of her essays. The
    first one, expanded from a presentation she had made at a conference in Texas
    in the summer of 1999, was entitled ‘Bangla Sahityer Diasporik Bhuban: Ekti
    Bhumika, Kichhu Prasongik Byaktigoto Sakshyo o Bhabona’ (Jijnasa, 20: 3,
    1999). The title may be translated as ‘The Diasporic World of Bengali
    Literature: An Introduction, Some Relevant Personal Testimonies and Thoughts’.
    The second one was called ‘Desh aar Bidesh: Bangla Diasporar Kayekjon Sahityik’
    (Bangla Journal, April-August 2002). This title can be translated as
    ‘Home and Abroad: Some Writers of the Bengali Diaspora’. Even before these, in
    1996 she had published an essay in the autumn issue of the magazine Korak,
    entitled ‘Ekjon Abhibasi Kobir Jibon: Kichhu Byaktigoto Kotha’, i.e., ‘The Life
    of a Poet Who Has Emigrated: Some Personal Reflections’. It is interesting to
    observe how her terminology evolves and leaves its marks on the titles of her
    essays, progressing from the idea of emigration to that of diaspora. One can
    see that she has been re-thinking the relevant issues. As Ketaki is herself a
    member of the Bengali diaspora, her gaze is penetrating. Her essays encapsulate
    many issues arising from the experience of living and writing in a diasporic
    situation, especially in the context of Bengali: questions, debates, and also
    possibilities. And she writes not just about her own experiences as a writer,
    but also cites with care the various activities of other writers of the Bengali
    diaspora scattered in Britain, the European Continent, the USA, Canada, and
    Australia. In ‘Desh aar Bidesh’ she concludes: “There is no doubt that the
    writings of Bengalis who have emigrated have come a long way. We can say
    without any hesitation that this stream of writing has enriched Bengali
    literature and is bringing new material to it.” We can see that she is
    sufficiently confident and optimistic about the future of diasporic writing in
    Bengali. Yet intriguingly some writers, themselves members of this diaspora,
    including some whose names have been mentioned by Ketaki with due seriousness,
    question the very existence of a diasporic stream of Bengali literature. For
    instance, in an interview given to Shoumyo Dasgupta and published in the autumn
    2005 issue of the magazine Kabisammelan, Shahid Kadri, a poet settled in
    the USA, says: “I repeat, it doesn’t seem to me that there has been any
    significant creation of literature in Bengali from locations abroad. But I
    think poetry and fiction of quality may emerge in the future from the
    experiences of diasporic life.” Ketaki protested against this comment in an
    interview given to the magazine Agrobeej (1:1, June 2007), adding that a
    somewhat similar opinion had been expressed by Abdul Gaffar Choudhury at the
    conference in Texas in 1999 already referred to. I too had a similar experience
    when in the beginning of 2008 I interviewed Alokeranjan Dasgupta in connection
    with the present project. He too did not believe that there was such a thing as
    a literature of the Bengali diaspora. Although he has lived in Germany for a
    long period, he does not wish to include his poetry in such a category. In a
    Bengali gathering organized by ‘Muktodhara’ in the summer of 2010 in New York,
    Syed Shamsul Haq, one of the important poets of contemporary Bangladesh, said
    to me that in the case of Bengali literature he did not see any good reason for
    having a separate category for ‘diasporic’ writing. He regarded Dilara Hashem,
    present in that gathering, simply as a Bengali writer. Yet Dilara herself, when
    I interviewed her, identified herself vigorously as a diasporic writer.



     



    One wonders what could be the origin of
    such a denial of the obvious. Is it a reluctance to stand against the stream,
    an uncertainty about the medium of self-expression, or a fear that admitting a
    diasporic status might mean that the country of origin is being viewed as ‘the
    Other’? Interestingly, all three whose opinions have been quoted in this
    respect are senior male writers. Is there perhaps some gender bias here?


    Both Ketaki and Dilara are indeed very
    conscious of their identity as diasporic writers and confident about it.
    Perhaps women do have an intrinsic power to strike roots in a new environment,
    to extend kinship, to make what was unknown their own stuff? Without going into
    any ‘-ism’ or theoretical elaboration, one can say that the gaze with which
    these two view the world around them is a woman’s gaze. Whatever emerges from their
    writings or what they consciously depict therein, from managing the household to
    research or other intellectual pursuits, their identity as women is never denied.
    This is one reason why I have chosen to write about these two writers in this
    paper. But a more important reason is the wide-ranging, expansive nature of
    their works. Though they have spent most of their adult lives ‘abroad’, they
    are very well-known in their home territories, West Bengal and Bangladesh,
    where they are claimed by the literary mainstream and have been honoured by
    several literary prizes. These two women writers belong roughly to the same
    generation, but their methods of construction in their fictional works are
    different. Dilara builds faultlessly neat plots. Ketaki is less interested in
    telling a story as such, as she does not see life as a story with a beginning,
    a middle, and an end, but more as endless conversations. Accordingly she is
    more interested in exploring historical, social, and political skies on the
    intellectual wings of her characters. In Dilara’s fiction the backdrop keeps
    shifting, whereas Ketaki, without changing the locations of her main
    characters, shows others through their eyes – people who have come from
    other corners of the globe, with different languages and cultural baggages. But
    in both cases, their readers are enabled to view the wide world through the
    window of the Bengali language. Therefore both a certain unity and a certain
    diversity mark the literary works of these two authors, but for the purpose of
    close study, I shall select one novel by each author.



     



    Ketaki Kushari Dyson was born in Calcutta
    in 1940. But she has family roots in East Bengal and retains vivid childhood
    memories of that region. Her father worked initially for the old Bengal Civil
    Service and after 1947 was inducted into the new Indian Administrative Service.
    Her school education and the first phase of her university education took place
    in Calcutta. The literary heritage of Tagore and of post-Tagore poets such as
    Buddhadeva Bose, Sudhindranath Datta, and others, had already struck firm roots
    in her consciousness by then. After graduating from Calcutta University in
    English Literature in 1958, at the age of eighteen, she went to Oxford for
    further studies in 1960, and was already a promising young poet in Bengali by
    then. After completing her studies at Oxford, she returned to Calcutta and
    taught there for a short while. In 1964 she returned to England after marrying
    an Englishman and became a British citizen in 1965. Later, she did a doctorate
    at Oxford. She has been a full-time writer and researcher for a long time.



     



    Ketaki is one of those rare and exceptional
    writers who write equally skilfully in both English and Bengali. She writes in
    many different genres with ease: poetry, fiction, plays, literary criticism and
    translation, and research-based scholarly works. She writes poetry, essays, and
    research-based books in both languages. She also translates between both
    languages, in both directions. But her fiction and plays she has so far written
    in Bengali only. She believes that every language is a window to view the world
    and encapsulates a weltanschauung. At the same time, she knows that
    languages are not static, but are continuously evolving. When a thought is
    expressed in the medium of a particular language, when a character is imagined
    and shaped in the context of that language, it is something unique: it would
    not be quite the same in any other language. She has so far published some
    thirty-three titles, out of which ten are collections of poetry, six in Bengali
    and four in English. She has been writing poetry since childhood. When she was
    studying at Oxford in the sixties, her Bengali poetry used to be published
    regularly in the magazine Desh. She started writing poetry in English
    only after settling in England on a permanent basis. She has commented on this
    development thus:



     



    A combination of
    circumstances gradually conspired to shape me as a bilingual poet. I was living
    my adult life amongst people who spoke English as a mother tongue; my children
    were growing up, and English was the language of my new home; I was interacting
    with the other young mothers whose children were going to the same school as
    mine. The natural poet in me felt the need to express myself at a deeper level
    in English.[4]



     



    Why does she feel that she can write poetry
    and scholarly books in both her languages, but not her novels and plays? To
    that question she has the following answer:



     



    Nowadays poetry is
    written for a small audience of aficionados, but fiction is inevitably written
    for a bigger ‘market’. Each language embodies a certain gaze. When I write
    poetry in English, I feel in touch with my potential audiences, wherever they
    may be. When I write a research-based book in English, I know that I am
    addressing a small peer group of fellow scholars. But I don’t know how I would
    position myself in order to write an English-language novel ‘for the market’.
    This particular market is driven by much bigger commercial forces. I fear that
    I would have to change my focus. I am scared of being inauthentic, of being
    constrained, of having to edit myself, having to cut out references and
    intertextualities which come naturally to me – because they might be
    inaccessible to readers and unacceptable to publishers’ editors.[5]



     



    If one studies Ketaki’s published poetry
    collections chronologically – Bolkol (‘Bark’), Sap-Wood, Sabeej
    Prithibi
    (‘The Seeded Earth’), Jaler Koridor Dhorey (‘Along the
    Corridor of Water’), Spaces I Inhabit, Katha Boltey Dao (‘Allow
    Me To Speak’), Jadukar Prem, Jadukar Mrityu (‘Love the Magician, Death
    the Magician’), Memories of Argentina and Other Poems, Dolonchampay
    Phul Phutechhey
    (‘The Ginger Lily Has Blossomed’), In That Sense You
    Touched It
    – the outward aspects and intimate details of her evolving
    mental world and the world of her experiences gradually become clear to the eye.
    Her diasporic position is implicit in the body of her poetry in symbolic
    patterns. For instance, several poems spread over more than one collection tell
    the story of how the ginger lily taken by her from India flowered in her home.
    When the first bud appears on the ginger lily twelve years after it has rooted
    itself in the soil of the new country, the poet sees in it an extension of her self,
    an expression of her own being. Among her recent poems, published in magazines
    but not yet gathered into a collection, there is a poem entitled ‘Duratva’
    (‘Distance’), in which various kinds of distance merge: geographical distance,
    the distance between the literary activities of those who are in the mainstream
    and those who inhabit the margins, the distance between youth and middle age.
    The diasporic poet draws lines and connects the clusters of her scattered self.



     



    Ketaki started writing prose from the
    mid-sixties. The essays and book reviews of Shikorbakor (‘Roots’) and
    the autobiographical sketch Nari. Nogori (‘Woman, City’) belong to this
    period. Gradually from this time onwards she develops her characteristic art of
    looking with deep compassion at the visible lives of fellow human beings and
    searching for their past histories which are submerged under water like the
    bottom parts of floating glaciers. Like a diver she dives under those glaciers,
    connecting the lives of individuals with their social-anthropological
    dimensions and the big historical canvas. She gained a special expertise in
    this kind of work in course of her doctoral research at Oxford, which led to
    the publication, in 1978, of the book A Various Universe: A Study of the
    Journals and Memoirs of British Men and Women in the Indian Subcontinent,
    1765-1856
    .



     



    It was the research done for A Various
    Universe
    that encouraged Ketaki to write a novel in the format of letters
    and diary entries. Her first full-length novel, Noton Noton Pairaguli
    (‘Those Crested Pigeons’), serialized in Desh in 1981-82 and published
    as a book in 1983, is built in the form of letters and diary entries written by
    a Bengali woman in Britain named Noton. The canvas is crowded with details of
    the world around this character, both human and natural, including Irish,
    English, and Algerian characters, creating an attractive, multicoloured,
    multicultural pattern. Her second novel, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor
    Sandhaney
    (‘In Search of Rabindranath and Victoria Ocampo’) was written
    over 1981-82 and published in 1985. This is the novel I shall discuss in detail
    a little later. In Ketaki’s third full-length novel, Jal Phunre Aagun
    (2003, ‘Fire Piercing Through Water’) the angle of vision is shared between two
    characters, a Bengali man of mixed parentage and his more mixed daughter. The
    events cover just one day and the location alternates between a town not far
    from London and Calcutta. Though there is a fictional narrative structure, it
    is very porous, allowing a massive influx of documentation, inquiry, and
    analysis touching present and past times. In her latest work, Tisidore
    (2008, ‘The Band Tied by Tisi’), her penchant for formal experimentation in
    mixing genres reaches a new dimension. In the context of a Bengali book she
    traverses the inner and creative worlds of two famous writers of the
    post-Tagore era, Jibanananda Das and Buddhadeva Bose. Parallel to this is an
    exploration of British working class and middle class lives in the twentieth
    century, through the letters received by Honor Pope and the autobiography of
    Margaret Clarke. Ketaki shows how these two women became exceptionally strong
    through their inner resources and were able to overcome social, political, and
    familial handicaps in their lives. The narrative thread that holds these real
    historical characters together has only a minimal admixture of fictional
    material. It seems that the author wanted the narrative part to play the role
    of a thread weaving a garland, no more: it looks as if she did not want it to
    make demands on us in its own right. The last part of the novel is set in
    Venice, giving us the additional flavour of a travelogue.



     



    Ketaki has written three plays: Raater
    Rode
    (‘Night’s Sunlight’, written in 1990, premièred in 1994, published in
    1997), Mozart Chocolate (published in 1998), and Suparnarekha
    (published in 2002). The first two have been staged in the original Bengali and
    in English versions prepared by he author herself. In the Introduction to her
    English translation of the first play, Night’s Sunlight (2000), she
    makes a special attempt to draw attention to the mixed character of her
    creation. She wants her audiences and readers to understand that what she
    creates is just as deeply rooted in the social, political, and cultural lives
    of two countries as she is herself. She writes:



     



    Thus, I do not
    consider that this play of mine is really a ‘foreign’ play for this country.
    How could it be, when it is set in a living-room in Britain? But what is more,
    whoever reads this play will realize that it could not have been written by
    someone who did not live here. Like virtually everything I have written in my
    adult life, it belongs in a very real sense to Britain, of which I have been a
    citizen since 1965, and where I live and work for most of the time. It is
    British writing – but with a difference, because it is written in Bengali,
    which links it to another cultural matrix, makes it part of a distant
    literary/socio-cultural ‘polysystem’. In effect, like most work I produce in
    any genre, it has two cultural matrices.[6]



     



    And again:



     



    Bengalis can see
    that my play is ‘Bengali-but-with-a-difference’. Those who see themselves as
    the moral guardians of theatre criticism may not take to it as ducks to water,
    but with their feet kicking, they may admit that at least it fits conveniently
    into the slot of eccentric diasporic writing. Others perceive that it has an
    international flavour without losing its Bengali pulse. I want to show my
    British friends that the same text can also be read as
    ‘British-but-with-a-difference’.[7]



     



    That Ketaki did succeed in a great measure
    in infusing this dual quality into her play can be gauged from the following
    comment of Tom Cheesman: “Ketaki Kushari Dyson herself is an almost
    prototypical ‘axial writer’, one whose imagination and audience span far-flung
    societies linked by migration history, and who commutes along the migratory
    routes (‘axes’), both in mind and (when she gets the chance) in person.”[8] Ketaki’s characters may be
    Bengalis, but a little bit different from what we might expect; they may be
    British, but again somewhat different from what we might expect. She walks, as
    it were, along the raised ridgeway between two fields. It is not surprising
    that outside the Bengali-speaking world she is best known for her acclaimed
    translations of Bengali poetry into English – I Won’t Let You Go: Selected
    Poems of Rabindranath Tagore
    (1991, expanded edition, 2010) and Selected
    Poems of Buddhadeva Bose
    (2003).



     



    Yet it is interesting that she has always
    so far chosen to write her novels and plays in Bengali. Questioned about this,
    she commented thus in a recent interview given to me:



     



    Whether my
    characters are Bengalis of the diaspora, or English, or Irish, or Algerian, or
    mixed, if I view them ‘in Bengali’, my canvas automatically becomes wide and
    inclusive, as though I was covering what I was viewing with a wide-angle
    camera, and I can spread my whole being in that expanse. If I write in Bengali,
    my writing remains rooted within Bengali culture, yet I don’t have to exclude
    anything I see; as a Bengali who knows the West, I can present all my comments
    on the familial and social interactions of the Western world through similes
    and metaphors in the Bengali style, bringing out all the nuances. If I look at
    the same scene through the lens of English, my viewing becomes limited; I then
    have to suppress some of my Bengali reactions, exclude some of the finer
    chiaroscuro of social analysis done from a Bengali angle of vision, because it
    is not so easy to execute those chiaroscuro effects in English, because
    conveying fine nuances depends very much on the language being used.[9]



     



    Giving an example of how the ‘inclusive’
    nature of the Bengali language encourages the inclusion of fine nuances, Ketaki
    then went on to point out the large storehouse of kinship terms in Bengali,
    compared to which the terminology available in English is extremely limited.[10] Ketaki’s eagerness, as a
    diasporic writer, to relate to a different environment, and to human beings in a
    new environment, seems to find a suitable vehicle in Bengali and its
    word-hoard.



     



    I would sum up in the following manner.
    When Ketaki’s innate rationality, together with her love of intellectual
    debates and her positive curiosity about the world and forms of life, nurtured
    by her heritage of the benign universal consciousness of the Bengal
    Renaissance, spreads its branches like a tree in the English sky, the fruit
    that it bears attracts us by virtue of its sheer hybridity. I shall try to
    clarify this by a more extensive discussion of her novel Rabindranath o
    Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney
    .



     













    Rabindranath o Victoria
    Ocampor Sandhaney






    The name itself suggests that it is not a
    run-of-the-mill novel. As a matter of fact, the title of the book does not
    suggest that it is a novel at all; rather, it suggests that it is a research-based
    scholarly book on the two famous personalities. A hint is given in the word
    ‘sandhaney’ (‘in search of’, ‘in quest of’). The research that the author
    herself did on the relationship and exchanges between Tagore and Victoria
    Ocampo, one of the distinguished female authors and thinkers of
    twentieth-century Argentina, is precisely the research that Anamika, the
    principal female character in the novel, is also doing. This is not at all an
    artificial, plot-driven construction, as happens so often in science fiction or
    detective stories. Ketaki constructs a new genre of writing by mixing different
    genres. Tisidore, written much later, can be put in the same category,
    except that in Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney the fictional part
    and the research-based part are equally important. In her foreword to the book,
    Ketaki informs us that when in 1981 Biram Mukhopadhyay, the editor at Navana,
    requested her to write a short book on Tagore and Victoria, a new novel was
    germinating within her. She felt the need to meet the demands of both genres.
    As she puts it, “Gradually, through some hidden chemical process of the mind,
    which I cannot fully analyze, the two themes became totally stuck to each other
    in my consciousness.”[11] A deep reading of the text can
    enable us to analyze, to some extent, the interconnection of the two themes. On
    the one hand, Anamika proceeds with her research, consulting data scattered in
    different places, books and journals held in a library, and unpublished letters
    held in an archival collection. She tries to find out what the relationship of
    Tagore and Victoria was really like, how it evolved and matured, what their personalities
    and inner worlds were really like. On the other hand, she faces the challenges
    of her personal life, eagerly meets and greets people around her, and does not
    hesitate to respond positively to the call of a new relationship. Though
    Anamika’s personal life and her research begin as separate tracks, at some
    point they become complementary to each other, just as two rivers flowing in
    separate channels can unite and then flow towards the sea in one stream. This
    overlapping can be seen in the way the chapters are built too. At first the
    fictional narrative and the research progress in separate chapters, but gradually
    this division disappears. Anamika’s personal life and her research become two
    dimensions of the same existence.



    There is no ambivalence about this at all:
    rather, the two streams move rapidly forward, giving pushes to each other.
    Through her discovery of Victoria, Anamika passes successfully through two deep
    crises of her life; blended with that passage is her examination of Tagore’s
    thoughts on the role of women.





    Ketaki subsequently undertook the editing of the
    entire correspondence between Tagore and Victoria, and wrote a full-length
    study in English of the friendship between these two great personalities. In
    Your Blossoming Flower-Garden: Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo
    was
    published by Sahitya Akademi a few years later in 1988.



     



    The second chapter of the novel is
    basically a book review. Anamika writes a review of Doris Meyer’s biography of
    Victoria Ocampo and posts it. The original version of this book review was
    actually published in the journal Jijnasa, before Ketaki had embarked on
    her project to write the novel. The review encapsulates a good, reasonably
    comprehensive portrait of Victoria. Victoria Ocampo was born in Buenos Aires
    in1890 into a wealthy and aristocratic family. As she grew up, she acquired
    fluency in French and English: actually she did not start writing in Spanish
    until her forties. Subsequently she founded the famous literary magazine, Sur,
    wrote essays, gave leadership to the feminist cause, and had interactions with
    numerous distinguished personalities of her times – from Paul Valéry to
    Virginia Woolf and from Albert Camus to Mussolini. Of course, this incredible
    expanse of her contacts had an inner circle of close friends. In the twenties
    three world-famous writers and thinkers stirred and influenced her: Ortega,
    Keyserling, and Tagore. Her interactions with Ortega and Keyserling were not
    always smooth. In this respect, Tagore was an exception. Their relationship,
    throughout their lives, was one of friendship and mutual respect. Not that they
    always thought alike or trod the same paths, but they had no problem in
    carrying on a dialogue with each other, with respect for each other’s thoughts.
    After Tagore’s death, Victoria wrote an obituary in Sur, in which she
    said that she had encountered this poet from the East three times in her life.
    The first encounter was through André Gide’s French translation of the English Gitanjali,
    which enabled her to survive a deep crisis in her personal life. The second
    encounter was when she met Tagore in person in November 1924 and for two months
    had him and his English secretary Leonard Elmhirst as her guests in the villa
    Miralrío. During moments of leisure in those two months Tagore and Victoria
    discussed literature, Tagore translated for his ‘Vijaya’ some of the poems he
    was writing at the time, and both felt an electrical current of mutual
    attraction charging through them. They met for the third time in France in
    1930. Victoria arranged an art exhibition for Tagore in Paris. Tagore hoped
    that they would meet again in India, but that did not happen. In spite of
    Tagore’s fervent wish that ‘Vijaya’ should visit him, she did not visit India.
    She finished paying her homage to him in a tranquil gentleness of spirit.



     












    In Your Blossoming
    Flower Garden






    But in her subsequent research-based book
    on Tagore and Ocampo, In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden, Ketaki quotes
    from unpublished sections of Ocampo’s autobiography to show that there was also
    a physical dimension to the attraction that Tagore felt for this foreign woman.
    That was very natural, very human, though in the end the relationship did not
    flow in that particular channel. As a matter of fact, Victoria loved several
    men during her long life: those relationships gave her strength, and sometimes
    they also lacerated her, but she never allowed the strong onward flow of her
    life to lose its way in sandbanks.



     



    After the publication of her two books on
    Tagore and Ocampo, the novel and the academic publication, Ketaki wrote, in
    response to some comments in a review:



     



    In this day and
    age, it must be said, with some emphasis, that for Victoria her love life and
    the loves of her life were equally important, equally demanding. ... The
    constant tension between ‘love life’ and ‘loves of life’ is at the very heart
    of Victoria’s life, and unless one takes this into account, one does not understand
    Victoria. I guessed this right from the beginning of my work, and precisely
    because of that realization I introduced a similar tension in Anamika’s life as
    well.[12]



     



    This tells us that Ketaki had gradually
    reached a reasonable certainty about the chemical interaction that was taking
    place between her fiction and her research. In her mental world, Anamika becomes
    a successor of Victoria, and beckoned by Victoria’s amazing life and genius,
    she goes forward on her personal journey step by step. At some point she feels:
    “The wheel has turned. One day that Argentine woman had found in Tagore her
    friend, her guru, her guide. ... After all these days a Bengali woman living in
    Britain is finding in Victoria a friend, a guru, a guide.”[13] Anamika not only does research,
    but drags the incomplete dialogue between Tagore and Victoria to modern times,
    and keeps it ongoing in the moments of her personal life.



     



    Victoria’s personality is mesmerizing, but
    set beside her, the character of Anamika is not lacking in fascinating qualities
    either. Once upon a time when she was in Calcutta, she was a student of
    comparative literature. But living in Britain with her psychiatrist husband
    Ranjan, her romantic, delicate inner being fed on literature found a firm
    ground on which to establish itself. In a favourable environment it gradually
    became evident that the curiosity that lay in the very heart of Anamika’s being
    was eager to reach out its hand to the world beyond the bounds of literature.
    From helping her children with their French or German homework she moves
    eagerly to learning Spanish herself, and with the same degree of eagerness
    volunteers to be a guinea pig in some trials involving the use of the
    contraceptive loop in the hospital where Ranjan works. Just as she immerses
    herself in her researches on Tagore and Victoria, so also she responds to the
    lyrical appeal of folk songs from different countries. She discovers the
    attractions of the Spanish Flamenco style of singing, dancing, and instrumental
    music, and soon thereafter accidentally discovers Ladino folk songs in the flat
    of a Jewish friend of hers. Ladino is the mother tongue of those Jews who were
    expelled from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. The exiles preserved
    with great loyalty their spoken language and their songs. Anamika finds an
    Oriental turn in the melodies of Ladino songs; the tunes seem familiar to her.



     



    It is because of these many facets of
    Anamika’s personality, her eagerness to express herself in different ways, that
    she does not lose her power to stand on her own two feet after Ranjan’s death.
    After Ranjan dies from a terrorist attack on a Belfast restaurant, she feels
    temporarily disoriented, but when she recovers, she decides to bring up her
    children in Britain. For Anamika knows, “Here a woman living on her own,
    whether she is a widow, or divorced, or simply single, can bring up her
    children as she wishes to, with her head held high. To put it briefly, the
    freedom to live one’s life as one wishes to is much greater in this society,
    and Anamika has always wished to live according to her own wishes.”[14]



     



    In this decision to live as she wishes to
    live, Anamika receives her greatest support from another free-spirited woman,
    who has been battered by life, but has not been broken: Emilia. After Ranjan’s
    death, Emilia looks after her with the tender, loving care of an elder sister
    and gives her friendship and companionship. Anamika had met Emilia through
    Ranjan. Emilia had once suffered from depression and had received treatment for
    it from Ranjan and his psychiatrist colleagues. During that time Ranjan had
    realized that Emilia’s nature was that of fire smouldering beneath ashes. After
    Emilia’s recovery, he had given her his and Anamika’s friendship.



     



    The story of Emilia’s own life unveils a
    chapter of world history. She was born in Turkey into a Sephardic Jewish
    family, those Jews whose ancestral roots were in Spain. When Emilia was a child
    her family left Turkey and migrated to Egypt. But they could not live in peace
    there for very long. Soon the clouds of the Second World War gathered in the
    skies. Jews became undesirable people in Egypt. Emilia’s family had to adopt
    disguises and run for safety from city to city, from country to country.
    Finally they reached Paris. Before that young Emilia had fallen in love with an
    Arab Muslim youth, had incurred the severe displeasure of her father and been punished
    by him. She had been married off to another Jewish youth and had had a
    daughter. She was expecting another baby, when one day, in Paris, her husband
    disappeared and never came back. His French had not been good enough to
    persuade German troops that he was just French. Emilia’s second daughter never
    saw her father. But Emilia did not admit defeat. She fought a lonely battle
    against her misfortunes and won, becoming a businesswoman in Paris and bringing
    her daughters up on her own. But when she reached middle age and had
    established herself reasonably well in life, she had a nervous breakdown. The
    losses and frustrations she had endured during her life became like a heavy
    rock and eventually she suffered a landslide within her mind. Ranjan and his
    colleagues heaved her up from the well of depression, as did her two daughters,
    Dina and Sonia, and also Christopher, who was a blessing in her life but
    brought the pain of unconsummated longing. He was an Englishman returned from
    India whom Emilia loved with all her heart, but he was already married and she
    could not have him for herself, which was another hidden reason for her
    breakdown.



     



    Emilia’s life-long rootlessness because of
    her Sephardic Jewish background, being forced to wander from country to country
    during the best years of her life, with her real identity concealed, having to
    surrender the present and the future of herself and her family to a keen sense
    of uncertainty and anxiety: in such details one may detect a modern expansion
    of the classical concept of the Jewish diaspora. Khachig Tölölyan, the theorist
    of diaspora studies, believes that because the word ‘diaspora’ was first used
    in connection with the uprooting of the Jews from their original homeland, it
    has become associated with a history of suffering:



     



    The destruction of
    Judaea by the Romans, the loss of the homeland and the ethnocidal violence of
    the Roman legions gave the term “Jewish diaspora” its full and painful meaning.
    Specifically, the Jewish predicament included the loss of redemptive proximity
    to the religious center of Jerusalem. In time, the concept of “diaspora” became
    suffused with the suffering that accompanies many sorts of exile. The pain and
    meaning specific to Jewish suffering in diaspora became conflated – especially
    in the literary imagination – with the pain laymen of other peoples have felt
    and expressed in response to individual exile, from Ovid to Dante and beyond.
    Consequently, a definition of “diaspora” emerged implicitly, out of consistent
    usage, and endured in a literature of lamentation that emerged among Jews and,
    a millennium later, among Armenians.[15]



     



    In this novel, however, Emilia traverses
    the periods of intense suffering in her life and reaches a sense of having
    overcome her problems. Ketaki shows that life becomes meaningful when human
    beings are connected to one another, not when they are isolated from one
    another. Two human beings who speak different languages, represent different
    cultures, and were born in two different corners of the earth, may nevertheless
    think in the same style and share a common world-view. With Ranjan’s help,
    Emilia’s homeless psyche manages to stay afloat and reaches life’s shore in a
    new way, and acquires a new dimension through frequent exchanges with Anamika.



     



    Anamika’s close friendship with Emilia and
    her research on Victoria Ocampo commence roughly at the same time, and this may
    seem somewhat accidental, but there is a significant link between the two,
    which Anamika herself discovers, to her own amazement. Victoria, the daughter
    of a wealthy and aristocratic Argentine family, acquired a remarkable fluency
    in French and English, as was the custom in her class of society, but
    eventually had to learn to express herself in her mother tongue, Spanish. Her
    magazine Sur and her essays in Testimonios testify to that
    growth. And Emilia, too, was a Sephardic Jew whose mother tongue was Ladino,
    descended from fifteenth-century Spanish. She also knew English, French,
    Italian, Portuguese, and even some Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Greek. Yet this
    knowledge of multiple languages did not give her an extensive field of
    self-expression: she had to move from country to country, from city to city,
    sometimes in her own and at other times in an assumed identity, receiving
    knocks, till she reached middle age. Victoria was an international personality:
    her incredible circle of friends has become a myth. In Emilia’s case, her
    father deprived her of her first love, the Arab Muslim youth; the Second World
    War snatched her husband; and Christopher was reclaimed by his wife and
    children. Anamika is stirred and moved by a certain symmetry between Victoria
    and Emilia. “Anamika thinks of her Emi-di. Like Victoria Ocampo, Emilia did not
    get the chance to go to university, and she too was an extraordinary woman. ...
    Anamika knows that behind every successful Victoria Ocampo there are several
    Emilias who have been denied opportunities.”[16]



     



    Emilia helps Anamika to make progress in
    reading Spanish texts and thus aids her research. And Anamika translates some
    of the Ladino songs and poems she hears from Emilia into her own mother tongue,
    Bengali. Giving a rebirth to those songs from Emilia’s forlorn mother tongue,
    Anamika, in a way, restores to Emilia her lost sense of identity. Emilia says, “You
    are not a Sephardi yourself, yet you are so keen to find out more about our
    traditional folk songs, handed down from generation to generation. You are
    happily translating fragments of our lyrics into your mother tongue from a far
    country. How do you explain the urge to do this, this attraction, this sense of
    kinship? Ana, from that day when you explained to me that no language spoken by
    human beings was a dialect or a patois, but was just a language, I found a
    wonderful support within myself, on which to lean.”[17] This statement of Emilia’s
    makes us realize that the different heritages of different languages need not
    act like barbed wire fences, but can actually build bridges between people. All
    her life Emilia has had to carry a burden – a sense of insecurity because of
    her minority identity, a feeling of vulnerability, a degree of embarrassment –
    but she is able to overcome this handicap. Tölölyan finds a new dimension of
    modernity among diasporic people. He shows that those who have had to leave
    their native lands for political, social, or religious reasons are moulded into
    new shapes by the heat and pressure of their new environments, thereby
    acquiring a new identity, and the entire modern world is moving precisely
    towards that kind of identity. Therefore diasporic people should not feel
    embarrassed about the fact that they are losing their ‘purity’ and acquiring
    ‘hybridity’.



     



    Diasporas need not
    apologize for their alleged lack of authenticity, for the hybridity of
    diasporan identity, as if it represented mere decline from some purer homeland
    form. Rather – and there is an inevitable element of utopian
    self-congratulation here – at its best the diaspora is an example, for both the
    homeland’s and hostland’s nation-states, of the possibility of living, even
    thriving in the regimes of multiplicity which are increasingly the global
    condition, and a proper version of which diasporas may help to construct, given
    half a chance. The stateless power of diasporas lies in their heightened
    awareness of both the perils and rewards of multiple belonging, and in their
    sometimes exemplary grappling with the paradoxes of such belonging, which is
    increasingly the condition that non-diasporan nationals also face in the transnational
    era.[18]



     



    In the novel Emilia’s life is like a line
    connecting two eras, beginning in articulations of an uprooted existence, but
    finally receiving endorsement from Anamika’s universalistic mindset. On the
    other side, Anamika learns from Emilia the courage to pursue her struggle for
    survival with two under-age children, in a world where no kinsfolk are near
    her, and the self-confidence to build a new life for herself.



     



    It is Emilia’s encouragement and moral
    support that propel Anamika in the direction of Ashani. Anamika had known
    Ashani as a family friend. They had first met in Delhi, and subsequently Ranjan
    and Anamika had got to know Ashani and his wife Els more closely during a holiday
    in the Welsh countryside. Ashani’s rendering of Tagore songs and his reading of
    one of his own poems has left a mark on Anamika’s mind. In Ashani’s own poem
    there was an image about a woman – “Companion of the sun,/ I had seen you/ many
    centuries ago/ under the ornate arch/ of the Martanda temple, – / particles of
    sunlight in your hair”[19] – which, with its echoes of
    Tagore and Jibanananda Das, now suggests to her the figure of Victoria Ocampo
    herself. Ashani works as a public relations manager for a German-owned chemical
    company and is married to a Dutch potter. His personality attracts Anamika.



     



    The second phase of their getting to know
    each other begins after Ranjan’s death, when Anamika has got over the first
    shock of her loss and is returning to the normality of daily life. Anamika is
    sorry to get the first hints of a breakdown in the relationship between Ashani
    and Els. Ashani expresses interest in Anamika’s work on Tagore and Victoria
    Ocampo, which makes the terrain of their interaction look more promising, full
    of possibilities. Her feelings blend with her research work on Tagore and
    Victoria and create a mélange of emotions within her.



     



    Their exchanges continue through their
    correspondence. Ashani sends her a prose poem addressed to her. She is touched,
    but certain lines trigger sparks of doubt across her mind: lines such as “O you
    without a name, you are not a temple, you are a woman belonging to the realm of
    delight and of tears”, or “Girl whose conch-shell bangles are broken, throw
    away the shells you are gathering. Those sea-birds with white wings – aren’t they
    enough? O solitary woman, your searching eyes smart with salt ...”[20] Does Ashani then see her
    just as a widow, a woman without a husband, who is keeping herself shackled in
    traditional ideas and customs, a woman whom Ashani has to rescue from her
    predicament by means of his manly prowess? She is disturbed, too, by Ashani’s
    comment on Victoria: “... to me her most important identity is really as
    Tagore’s Vijaya; no other identity is as big, or as important. I am not too
    bothered about whether she was a feminist or not, about what might be the true
    nature of her feminism, just as I am not bothered about whether you are a
    feminist or not, or what might be the true nature of your feminism...”[21] Anamika herself believes that
    it is impossible to understand Victoria without taking into account her
    feminism, and considers that intellectually she herself is following in the
    same path. Though not in agreement with him on this issue, she does not add
    heat to the debate, because she knows that human relationships are not cast in
    stone , but move forward and mature through dialogues. After Ranjan’s death,
    she has filled her time with managing on her own both the housework and looking
    after the children, and of course her own research work, but nevertheless there
    is now a gap in one area of her life. The companionship and friendship of a
    sensitive and compassionate male friend are not undesirable things to her.



     



    A somewhat accidental conjunction of events
    pushes their relationship forward at one blow from the level of intellectual
    exchanges. Anamika comes to Devonshire in connection with her archival
    researches, while office assignments bring Ashani to Brighton. They meet. After
    dinner and conversation in a Spanish restaurant Anamika spends the night with
    Ashani in his hotel in Dartmouth. She feels no obstacle within her mind about
    this, because she believes that it is possible for her to remain fully
    committed to Ranjan’s memory and to the children, and still attempt to build a
    new relationship. Eager and curious about everything by nature, Anamika is keen
    to reclaim an area of life through a new relationship, one that would lead to
    her further development and progress as a person. The way Anamika thinks
    reflects some of Ketaki’s own thinking on these issues:



     



    The natural attraction
    between a man and a woman can indeed occur within a friendship. It doesn’t mean
    that the friendship is immediately ‘spoilt’. That additional dimension need not
    harm the friendship; rather, it can enrich the friendship, provided we learn to
    take it naturally and gracefully. Because of the way we are socialized, various
    hang-ups about sexual matters tend to accumulate in our minds and become
    fast-rooted there. These become obstacles in the blossoming of friendship
    between men and women. Removing them needs a kind of awakening of the fountain.
    After such a discovery a ‘new man’ and a ‘new woman’ can be friends with each
    other in a richer sense.[22]



     



    Anamika is herself a ‘new woman’, as Victoria
    had been. But is Anamika’s new male friend also a ‘new man’? Some aspects of
    Ashani’s behaviour in their intimate moments together and some facts about his
    life gleaned from him stick like thorns in Anamika’s mind. What seems like
    modernity on one side – can it not sometimes display on its other side a wilful
    licence to do as one pleases? After telling Ashani that Emilia refers to Ashani
    as ‘Ash’, Anamika, at the moment of yielding to Ashani’s embrace, murmurs the
    opening lines of Tagore’s poem ‘Ujjiban’ (‘Revivification’) from the collection
    Mahua – “O you with the bow of flowers, leave your humiliating bed of
    ashes,/ and from Shiva’s fire, reincarnate yourself in a fiery body.” This
    collection, Mahua, suffused with the unseen presence of Victoria Ocampo,
    is where Tagore reincarnated the god of love whom Shiva had, in the mythical
    story, angrily reduced to ashes with the fire of his third eye. The poem
    ‘Ujjiban’ ends with the line: “O bodiless one, assume the body of a hero.”
    Anamika too hopes that through friendship, love, and companionship the two of
    them would be reborn. Even after seeing to their other commitments, they would
    still have some private time for each other. But in reality no ‘awakening of
    the fountain’ happens. On the contrary, from the moment of her getting up at
    the end of the night she experiences a different kind of rupture of dreams. At
    first she tries to ignore the moments that are out of tune, because she cannot
    imagine that all the love and attraction that this intelligent, educated
    Bengali supposedly feels for her would exhaust itself in one night’s dalliance.
    Confronted with contradictory, tattered clichés such as ‘But you can’t have me
    in bed, for love requires purity’ or ‘It’s me who is not worthy of you’, she
    feels internally battered, but decides to continue the dialogue for the time
    being, leaving the rest to the future.



     



    Invited by Ashani to have a holiday in
    Brighton, Anamika goes there with her son Saugato, to find that his daughter
    Mousumi and a friend named Margrit have come with him. Margrit’s gentle and
    pleasant manner creates no unpleasant feelings in Anamika. Returning from
    Brighton, she is able to write to Ashani, “I’ve never demanded before that you
    will be exclusively my friend, nor am I demanding it now. ... Especially at our
    age, it makes no sense to regulate our loves on a ‘one at a time’ basis. On the
    contrary, it is surely our task to keep alive, through careful watering, those
    loves which fate has kindly enabled us to reach.”[23] In writing this, is Anamika
    somehow betraying a poverty of spirit, or is this receptivity her strength, her
    modernity? Actually, Ashani and Anamika are looking at the same thing from
    completely different perspectives. Ashani is hoping that having learnt about
    Margrit’s existence, Anamika will push off, whereas Anamika believes that
    generosity and the ability to acknowledge the truth are the yardsticks of
    mature love. In the end, Ashani terminates the relationship by writing a
    letter. But even there, he does not hesitate to add: “... my regret is that you
    did not understand my sadhana, you did not appreciate my tapasya
    built bit by bit. You have an appetite for sexuality, but no appetite for
    silence.”[24]
    Ashani has already regurgitated several such clichés borrowed from outdated
    ideologies, but at this point his hypocrisy is stunning.



     



    Even in this critical period of her life,
    Anamika’s research work keeps flowing forward. It is as if she was seeking in
    her work an answer, a refuge, a successful voyage. The two stories, that of
    Tagore and Victoria on the one hand, and that of Ashani and Anamika on the
    other, create a most interesting contrast for the reader. Anamika’s research
    shows us that Tagore did make many comments on the man-woman relationship which
    were locked within his very personal theoretical framework, from which men like
    Ashani could borrow words and idioms as they needed. Anamika finds many such
    comments problematic from a modern viewpoint. For instance, just a few days
    after his encounter with Victoria, Tagore writes in Paschimjatrir Diary, “A
    man’s greatest development is in tapasya; in a woman’s love the dharmas
    of renunciation and service are in tune with that tapasya; when the two
    are together, they enhance each other’s radiance. There is yet another kind of
    melody which can also play in a woman’s love: the twanging of the bow of the
    god of love. That’s not a tune leading to liberation; it’s the music of
    bondage. It ruptures the discipline of tapasya and thereby kindles the
    fire of Shiva’s anger.”[25] Doesn’t the language of
    Ashani’s last letter seem very close to this? Anamika gradually discovers how Tagore’s
    views on the man-woman relationship change over the years. One of the reasons
    may be the fact that in these theorizing writings he has addressed different
    audiences in different countries. But even after taking into account the
    differences induced by his target audiences, Anamika finds that a certain sense
    of uncertainty tends to cling to his thinking on women for a long time. She
    suspects that this is because Tagore did not have the personal experience of
    living with a woman in a close relationship for many years, moving on from
    youth to middle age and thence to old age. In his boyhood he lost his mother;
    in his early youth he lost his cherished sister-in-law Kadambari Devi; and when
    he attained maturity as a young man, he lost his wife. A gap remained in his
    world of direct experience, which he tried to fill again and again with
    theories.



     



    Victoria Ocampo came to his life, bringing
    a completely new flavour of experience. Learned and attractive at the same
    time, she was very different from the models of womanhood with which he had
    been familiar. When he encountered and interacted with Victoria’s personality,
    there was a change in his thinking also. In order to have a dialogue with
    Victoria, he would have had to go beyond the models of a presiding goddess of
    the home or an inspiring Muse: there was no other option. After leaving San
    Isidro, he wrote to her on 13 January 1925: “Your friendship has come to me
    unexpectedly. It will grow to its fulness of truth when you know and accept my
    real being ...”[26]
    What did last to the end, until Tagore’s death, was this friendship – between a
    man and a woman with a big age gap and living in two different hemispheres of
    the globe. Anamika explains: “In the currents of the sixteen or seventeen years
    after their first meeting, just as Victoria learnt to identify Tagore’s inner
    conflicts and contradictions, in a similar way Tagore too managed to form at
    least a partial idea of the modern intellectual woman, rebellious and wanting
    the liberation of women, who dwelt within Victoria – in the same way as one can
    make out, through the stained glass windows of a church, the sunshine outside.”[27] Anamika believes that
    Victoria’s personality did slowly bring about changes in Tagore’s thinking on
    women too. When in the last stage of his life he says, in his essay ‘Nari’
    (‘Woman’) in Kalantar, that “the women who dwell in our homes are
    everyday becoming women who dwell in the world”, or “...at the end of an era
    women have assembled to perform their share in what has to be done in the building
    of a new civilization – everywhere in the world they are getting ready for the
    task. ...The human community into which they have been born is becoming clear
    to their eyes in every direction and every realm of activity”[28] – then the subtle shadow of Victoria
    that falls across such thoughts invest them with a positive and modern
    significance.



     



    Arrived at this point, Anamika’s personal
    life and her research work create a marvellous contrasting pattern in front of
    the reader’s eyes, a pattern that has many levels and planes. From one point of
    view, both are ‘discoveries’ for her. The novelist collects data from letters
    and other archival documents about two famous personalities from the past,
    recreating their relationship bit by bit. Side by side with this, she peels the
    layers of diasporic Bengali life like an onion. On the one hand we see how the
    relationship of Tagore and Victoria overcomes a huge geographical distance and
    linguistic and cultural differences to reach an estuary of tranquil friendship,
    because both of them have tried in their own ways to understand ‘the other’,
    and Tagore has tried specially hard to do so, changing some of his old ideas.
    On the other hand, the relationship of Ashani and Anamika stumbles and
    collapses before it can take off in a proper sense, because, as Anamika comes
    to realize, all of Ashani’s activities, from living with a Dutch wife and
    having multiple relationships with different women in different stages of his
    life, to reading literature and writing poems, have remained at a shallow
    level. Interaction with Ranjan and Emilia, and her own research work have
    together raised Anamika’s world of awareness to a universalist level, where
    Ashani cannot quite reach, or even if he does, he feels uneasy there. This is
    because Anamika, although very much a Bengali woman, is unwilling to perpetuate
    the archetype of ‘the Bengali woman’ when she expresses her personhood. Ashani
    had wanted to see this archetype in her. Ketaki does also destroy here the
    conventional pattern of diasporic life. Generally speaking, people in diaspora
    like to maintain contact with those who represent their homeland and
    language-group, and enjoy the pleasures of a gregarious existence. On this Tölölyan
    has this to say: “Diasporan communities care about maintaining communication
    with each other. Individuals living in various diasporized communities stay in
    touch with kinfolk and with family and with often quite formalized obligation
    and friendship networks in the homeland ...”[29]



     



    But of course there are exceptions to this
    model. Anamika is one such exception. She is attracted to Ashani not because he
    is a Bengali, but because he seems at first to be in her wave-length. The same self-confidence
    with which she brings up her children on her own and does her work as an
    independent researcher enables her to come out of the relationship in which she
    is deceived. In this Victoria herself shows her the way. Victoria says: “The
    union of a man and a woman is a human achievement which has a touch of the
    miraculous, is almost a tour de force, and even in the best of
    circumstances it cannot be attained without perseverance and patience – I would
    almost say without the combined heroism of two human beings ...”[30] Tagore had this kind of
    heroism; so had Victoria; and in Anamika too we see the glow of that heroism.



     



    In this book the overflowing lyricism of
    the Ladino songs adds a special flavour and dimension to the complex patterns
    of the two narratives, the story of Tagore and Victoria on the one hand and
    that of Anamika’s personal life on the other. Anamika translates the songs,
    bringing their meanings home to the reader. In these songs we have the
    spontaneous expression of the natural love of men and women, mingled with joy
    and sorrow. Sometimes they give hints of a wandering life. Altogether, they
    contribute a simple, spontaneous musicality to the peaks of a modern
    life-struggle. When in the very last chapter Anamika bakes an apple pie and
    sings a Ladino lullaby to her son, the simple spontaneity of the tune becomes
    the keynote of that daily existence, suggesting a space where human beings may
    breathe and survive.



     



     



    Dilara Hashem was born in 1936 and grew up
    in Barisal in undivided Bengal, now in Bangladesh. During the British days her
    father worked for the civil service and after 1947 for Pakistan’s Jute
    Regulation. Her father’s postings took her to various locations in northern
    Bengal and for some time to Calcutta too. Experiences garnered in such
    locations appear in her fictional work. She did her B. A. (Honours) and her M.
    A. in English Literature from Dhaka University in 1956 and 1957, getting
    married in the last stage of her university education. Her husband’s posting
    took her to Karachi, where she lived from 1962 to 1970 and gained some
    experience of working for the radio. At the time of the war of liberation for
    Bangladesh, she quitted Karachi and went first to London, working for a short
    time for BBC Radio’s Bengali service. In 1972 she migrated to the USA and
    within a short time joined the Bengali broadcasting service of the Voice of
    America, where she still works.



     



    Dilara is a popular writer in Bangladesh.
    Though she has written some poetry, she is mainly a writer of fiction. Her first
    novel Ghar Mon Janala (1965, ‘Home, Mind, Window’) was made into a film
    and has been translated into Chinese. She has published over thirty titles and
    like Ketaki has received several literary awards.



     



    A born story-teller, Dilara proceeds in her
    narratives with an eye on the portrayal of character and the warp and weft of
    human relationships. From her diasporic location she writes about remote rural
    regions in Bangladesh, American urban life, and transactions between different
    cultures. In the first phase of her life in diaspora she has written more about
    the old undivided and subsequently fractured Bengal. Perhaps because she had
    already gained popularity before leaving her native land, she continued, for
    some time, to write her novels against a tried and tested backdrop. Four
    important novels from this period are Ekada Ebong Ananto (1976, ‘Once
    and Always’), Stobdhotar Kane Kane (1977, ‘Whispering to Silence’), Amlokir
    Mow
    (1978, ‘Myrobalan Honey’), and Kakotaliyo (1985,
    ‘Coincidences’). The author’s personality and womanhood are active at the
    centre of all four. The central character in each case is a woman, and we are
    invited to look at the world through her eyes.



     



    In contrast, in a later period, Dilara
    places her stories against the backdrop of more than one continent and throws
    light on the work-lives and inner lives of diasporic Bengalis living and
    surviving at many different levels. Anukta Padabali (1995, ‘Untold
    Verses’) is set in Bangladesh, London, and the USA. Sitara comes to London with
    her husband and son at the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War, but her
    broken marriage does not mend. After her divorce, she goes to visit her elder
    sister in America, where she meets Asad, previously known to her in Bangladesh,
    and an understated relationship begins. That Sitara can go beyond the debris of
    her broken marriage and respond to new love is due to her being away from the
    land of her birth. Sadar Andar (1998, ‘Outer and Inner Rooms’) moves
    between Washington, Boston, New Jersey, and Dhaka. The novel opens with the
    sudden death of the successful businessman Ansar Ahmed. We are gradually made to
    see that in fact many different personalities lived within one man. He had
    disowned his only son for building a relationship with a black girl, but had
    secretly kept a white mistress himself. On the one hand, he had become a
    father-figure to a young Bangladeshi man who had come to America in search of a
    better life; on the other hand, as soon as he dies, his elder daughter’s
    patched-up marriage collapses.



     



    Other daringly imagined locations feature
    in this phase of creativity, stretching the horizons of the diasporic Bengali
    novel. Mural (1986) is set in Aurangabad in Western India. Chandragrahan
    (2003, ‘Lunar Eclipse’) is set entirely in Pakistan, making good use of some of
    the author’s own experience of living in West Pakistan. In the Pakistani hill
    station Murry Hills, there is a brewery established in British times. After the
    creation of Pakistan the Murry Brewery passes into the hands of a Parsee family.
    Alcohol is forbidden to most Pakistanis on religious grounds, yet poverty
    forces many people to seek employment there. Such a worker is Shirin. On one
    side of her is a conservative society, on the other bureaucratic complexity.
    The conflict between the two pushes the plot. Among the principal characters
    one is American, and the rest are Pakistani, but the novelist’s angle of vision
    is Bengali, giving the novel a specially mixed flavour.



     



    Another such novel is Setu (2000,
    ‘Bridge’), set partially in Sri Lanka. The novel could be regarded as an exemplar
    of that multiculturalism that has built the USA and Canada with their mosaic of
    races and colours. Here the principal characters are: a woman from India’s
    Lucknow; her husband who belongs to an aristocratic family from Sri Lanka; a
    doctor of Indian origin from Africa; and his girl-friend who is American-Jewish.
    Alongside the stories of personal turmoil is the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict of
    Sri Lanka. The novelist shows that despite murder and mayhem there are
    invisible bridges between human beings which make life worth living.



     



    One of Dilara’s major novels is Hamela
    (2001), where the story, unfolding like a ‘Draupadi’s sari’, connects Boston in
    the USA with Patarhat, a remote village in Barisal. Danesh Mirza, a respectable
    old man in Patarhat, becomes infatuated with the orphan Hamela, who is a great
    beauty, and marries her as his second wife just when his grown-up son Basset,
    who lives in Boston, returns for a visit to his native land with his wife
    Rubina, whom he has met and married in Boston. The novel begins dramatically
    with this situation and moves forward through these two locations, one
    representing urban America, the other a rural setting sunk in blind
    superstitions, both depicted faithfully. Basset and Rubina present the image of
    an educated, modern couple, while Hamela, trying desperately to cling to some
    man or other, is swept away like straw in flood waters. Out of loyalty to his
    roots Basset returns to Patarhat when Hamela and her lover Ramij die in a
    storm, to take charge of his step-mother’s two small children. Dilara is good
    at drawing new locales in a few strokes, expanding the horizons that are
    familiar to Bengali readers. And when in those locales she packs, with humanity
    and sensitivity, the stories of a few men and women, their strivings and
    yearnings, successes and failures, loves and losses, the characters do not seem
    distant or unfamiliar to Bengali readers, and the narratives flow forward with
    exceptional smoothness.



     



    The waves of migration that have travelled
    from South Asia to the Western countries from the second half of the twentieth
    century onwards contain many different categories of people – from university
    graduates to poverty-stricken, near-illiterate villagers. They have sought a
    ‘golden land’, a ground beneath their feet. Whatever their declared motives in
    migrating, the real underlying motive is usually economic – the bottom line of
    most migrations in the world today. The historian Judith Brown confirms this:
    “For most migrants a primary motivation behind migration was economic
    improvement for self and family, whether they were indentured labourers
    travelling to sugar plantations or a later generation of highly skilled
    information technology (IT) workers moving to America.”[31] Even when the avowed purpose
    of migration is the same, differences in education, culture, and social status
    generate substantial distances between migrants from the same country or
    linguistic territory: chasms which cannot be easily bridged. Ghulam Murshid,
    himself a diasporic writer and scholar originally from Bangladesh, explains the
    situation with many facts and examples in his book Kalapanir Hatchhani:
    Bilete Bangalir Itihas
    (2008, ‘The Beckoning of the Black Waters: The
    History of Bengalis in Britain’). The book has created some controversy among
    Bangladeshi migrants to Britain. There is no scope for getting into the details
    of that controversy here, but it would be true to say that the book gives us an
    overall history of Bengali migration to Britain. Murshid shows that just as, at
    the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, educated
    and aristocratic Bengalis cast off their medieval prejudices as a consequence
    of the Bengal Renaissance and began to cross the ‘black waters’ in their search
    for Western learning, so also, in a parallel stream, some working-class
    Bengalis crossed the seas as ships’ lascars. They were mostly men of the
    Chittagong and Sylhet districts, now in Bangladesh. Many worked as lascars in
    the merchant navy during the First World War. The work was immensely laborious
    and physically demanding. For that reason, as soon as a ship touched the shore
    of Britain, many of the lascars absconded. After a few days of surviving on
    scraps, they would find some employment somewhere as unskilled labourers, usually
    in shops or restaurants, sometimes as street vendors or pedlars. This class of
    migrants had a very strong group loyalty. When a new ‘countryman’ arrived,
    those who were already settled in Britain would give him shelter and help him
    to get work. As a result,, this stream of migration never dried up, and many of
    the new arrivals started up their own businesses, but not in diversified lines
    like the Punjabis or Gujaratis. Their business activities stemmed from pleasing
    the palate, providing curries in restaurants and selling spices and other
    culinary ingredients in specialized grocery shops. Their life-styles were
    utterly different from those who came for higher education or for professional
    jobs requiring proven expertise – from either Bangladesh or West Bengal. The
    result of this particular stream of migration can be seen in East London’s
    Brick Lane, where rows of restaurants, grocery stores, shops selling sweets,
    Bengali books, cassettes, and CDs proudly proclaim the extent of Bengali
    migration to Britain.



     












    Sinho o Ajogar






    In Dilara Hashem’s novel Sinho o Ajogar
    (2006, ‘The Lion and the Python’) the two principal characters, Shamsul and
    Rabeya, may be described as the American equivalents of the migrants to Brick
    Lane. Shamsul is the eldest son of an agricultural family in Kishorganj in
    Bangladesh. He has not studied beyond high school. Everybody expects him to
    look after his father’s land, and he begins doing that. But gradually he
    discovers that many young men from his community are emigrating to Dubai, or
    Saudi Arabia, or America, and returning home with lots of money and all kinds
    of amazing goods in their suitcases. He feels the excitement of it, and the
    idea of such an adventure intoxicates him. Suddenly he wins a green card for
    emigrating to America through a lottery system which gives a chance to such
    people to migrate to the USA. He sees a door opening for the fulfilment of his
    dreams. A marriage was in the process of being arranged for him – with Rabeya,
    from the same village. Quickly he gets that done with and proceeds with his
    wife to the ‘golden land’ of America to become a ‘rich man’. Shamsul is the
    twenty-first century successor of those in the remote rural districts of the
    old Bengal who once became lascars and crossed the ‘black waters’ in search of
    riches.



     



    The novel is the story of how Shamsul and
    Rabeya struggle to survive in a materialistic world. Science tells us that if
    substances are kept under certain degrees of pressure and heat for certain
    lengths of time, they undergo material and chemical changes. This truth
    probably applies to some extent to human beings too. In an unknown and
    unfamiliar world ruled by a completely different set of values, certain changes
    occur in the personalities and mental worlds of Shamsul and Rabeya. Gradually,
    another being is born within their simple rustic selves. The author has used
    ‘the lion’ and ‘the python’ as symbols of their inner world, which sometimes
    asserts itself angrily and sometimes goes to sleep. When he was in his
    homeland, Shamsul had no idea how his courage and ambition could push him onto
    his dream staircase, nor how the dream itself could assume a clear shape, like
    a distant source of light. Likewise, the village girl Rabeya had never imagined
    in her wildest dreams that it was possible to protest against her husband’s
    wishes, or that if they disagreed about something, she could envisage an
    alternative course of action. The transformation wrought by migration is thus
    not just external, but internal as well.



     



    Shamsul came to America after selling his
    share of his father’s land and getting some dollars for it. As he was an
    unskilled labourer, he did not get a reasonable job straight away. But he clung
    to his dollars, did not part with them, and in the beginning managed to make
    ends meet by delivering newspapers. Then he leased a shop-space and opened a
    grocery store, buying a second-hand sports utility vehicle for fetching his
    supplies. Two years rolled on. With Rabeya at his side, Shamsul prospered in
    his business. His customers were mainly local Bengalis, though most of them
    were not from his own social class. Some were doctors, some engineers, some
    worked for the World Bank, and yet others were estate agents. In their
    professional expertise and income they could vie with the white Americans, but
    when it came to pleasing their taste buds, they abandoned the supermarkets and
    preferred to crowd into Shamsul’s shop. There they could buy fish imported from
    Bangladesh, sturdy and muscular free-range halal chickens, spices, greens,
    ‘Aladdin’s sweets’ in special packets. Rabeya sat at the cash machine while Shamsul
    cut up the fish or meat with an electric knife and weighed out rice and dal,
    spices and greens for his customers. Within a short time he became an expert at
    managing his business. In between his little jobs he would carry on pleasant
    conversation with his customers or sneak in an extra piece of fish or a mango
    into a customer’s shopping bag, showing his Bengali goodwill – he could now do
    all that with full professional ease. To ambitious Shamsul, all customers were
    important and of equal value, because he knew that though he was close to his
    dream staircase, he might well need someone’s help to climb to the top. By now
    Shamsul had learnt the central mantra of the American way of life – time is
    money
    . He had no slots for leisure in his packed work-schedule, spending
    almost twelve hours in the shop with his wife, and coming home at night only to
    eat and sleep. The shop was closed every Monday, but that day was spent in
    checking the accounts and in fetching stuff for the following week. Shamsul had
    worked out where his bird’s eye was, the target he had to hit. He was trying to
    save every dime he was earning and felt that the rent of his apartment was
    money thrown down the drain. As soon as he had saved enough, he would take a
    loan and buy a house. He wanted to postpone having children until he had a
    place of his own. In fact, having a child was also for him a step on the dream
    ladder. He was overwhelmed by the idea that he could father an American child:
    a child born in that country automatically acquired American citizenship.



     



    Trying to buy his own house, Shamsul was in
    touch again with an old contact. Azam was an estate agent and took Shamsul to
    see houses in affluent and middle class neighbourhoods. Shamsul kept all such
    visits as secrets from Rabeya: he would buy the house and astound his wife. Pushing
    to a corner of his mind his wish to own, in the not too distant future, a house
    surrounded by a garden in an upper class neighbourhood, for the moment he just
    wanted to buy a two-bedroom ‘condo’. Then he would expand his business, and
    maybe he could sponsor and bring over his brother Abdul to help him in that
    project.



     



    Rabeya, on the other hand, had never dreamt
    of settling in America. She did learn to read and write in her village school,
    but it was rare for her even to read the daily newspaper. She thought she would
    get married to one of the boys of her village and live the rest of her life
    there. But within a short time after her marriage she crossed the seas, arrived
    in a new country, and found her days packed with relentless work. At first she
    was disoriented by this experience, but gradually got used to the new rhythm of
    her life, bathing in a tub rather than in a pond, eating pasta instead of rice,
    and pecan pies instead of sandesh. But she could not find happiness, for
    she did not share Shamsul’s dream. Her aspirations were altogether different.
    She did not like chasing groceries. She would rather have a baby and relax at
    home. She loved sewing. She could sew clothes for her baby. She would ask
    Shamsul to buy her a sewing machine. When Shamsul came home, she would take the
    baby out in a pram for an afternoon stroll. In other words, the summit of
    Rabeya’s ambition was to be a happy and prosperous housewife. Nursing that
    desire in her bosom, she had to work as hard as her husband. Her mind clouded
    over with the pain of being far away from her loved ones, as though with rain clouds.



     



    Shamsul was an honest, enterprising man;
    Rabeya was a tranquil wife and a good housekeeper. They should have been ideal
    partners for each other, but a trivial event dents their relationship, and in
    writing about that the author portrays, with a few fine strokes, the real
    crisis in the lives of migrants. Shamsul had himself taught Rabeya everything
    she needed to know to survive in her new life, both at home and in the shop.
    But it was to fulfil his own need. He had assumed that Rabeya would never
    falter in her unqualified self-surrender. It had never occurred to him that
    checking the cash in the shop, using the microwave oven and the washing machine
    at home, Rabeya could not remain the simple village girl for ever. Shamsul’s
    Bengali upbringing had not taught him that unless he learnt to share his
    thoughts and dreams with Rabeya, she would not be able to put her heart and
    soul into her work. Like a typical Bengali male, he thought that all decisions
    were for him, and for him alone, to take. Such thinking did not hold water in a
    society characterized by individualism.



     



    Sinking into a deep loneliness, Rabeya
    begins to feel that her husband has no respect for any of her wishes. Piqued,
    she turns her face away from her own household and looks around her. She
    discovers Medina, who lives in another flat in the same apartment block. Medina
    has a husband and a son, but she works in the local drugstore. She wears jeans
    and T-shirts, and either drives or takes the metro to work. Sometimes she goes
    to the mall to do her shopping. To Rabeya’s unaccustomed eyes, Medina comes
    across as a ‘free woman’, someone who moves about unescorted by her husband and
    ‘earns dollars’. Partly because she is annoyed with her husband, and partly to
    bring some excitement into her monotonous life, one day Rabeya goes to the mall
    with Medina. She takes some dollars from her shop cash, justifying the action
    thus: if Shamsul had to hire a worker, it would cost him quite a bit. Rabeya
    can lay a claim to a bit of cash in return for her labour. But as soon as
    Shamsul realizes that the takings are less than what they should be, he
    explodes with rage at his wife’s fecklessness. Rabeya does not admit that she
    has done anything wrong and vigorously argues with him. They spend the night in
    separate rooms and from the next day Rabeya stops going to the shop with
    Shamsul. Her position is now clear. “The shop is not mine,” she says, “it’s
    yours. You earn the money, you count it, and you save it. I came here with you
    from Kishorganj to have a family and run my own home, not to work in a shop.”[32]



     



    With Medina’s help, Rabeya finds herself a
    job in a fast food outlet. She earns dollars for every hour she works and pays
    back to Shamsul the money she owes him. Even with the help of a temporary
    worker, Shamsul cannot manage the shop. Inside his chest his ego and his rage
    puff themselves up like a lion’s mane. And Rabeya’s hurt and newly awakened
    sense of self coil within her like a python. The little bit of time they have
    to spend together at home they try to remain as quiet as possible, but within
    them the lion roars and the python lashes its tail.



     



    Alongside Shamsul and Rabeya, we see two
    other migrant Bengalis in this novel. One is the real estate agent Azam. To
    keep up appearances for the sake of his profession, he drives a Mercedes Benz,
    but is virtually bankrupted by his obligation to pay alimony to his divorced
    American wife. His sole gain from his wife is his American citizenship. Medina,
    on the other hand, had come to America, risking a great deal, to reform her
    husband, who was crazy about singing. But things did not turn out as she had
    hoped. She could not make ends meet with what her husband earned from driving a
    taxi. That was why Medina herself worked. Their adolescent son Taufik had
    developed an addiction to drugs when they were in Washington DC. They have
    moved to Virginia to save him. Shamsul had seen in Azam, and Rabeya in Medina,
    a picture of what they wanted to be. But gradually they both find out in their
    own ways the frustration and sense of emptiness lurking behind the apparent
    affluence and independence of these two. Drinking at a bar in between his job
    assignments, Azam empties his pitcher of life’s woes in front of Shamsul, the
    Bengali youth who does not belong to his own social class. He tells Shamsul
    that he is up to his ears in debt, that he had to hand over even his house to
    his former wife, but does not have the money to buy even a ‘condo’ like
    Shamsul. And Rabeya discovers how pressurized Medina is, how she has to
    struggle alone, managing her self-willed husband with a low income and a son
    hooked on drugs. Taufik’s drug-addicted companions from the past find him alone
    and knife him. He narrowly escapes death. When he returns from the hospital,
    Medina decides that she will go back to Dhaka with her son.



     



    Gradually Shamsul and Rabeya discover that
    though the new country had seemed so shining and alluring to them, not
    everything in it was smooth and faultless. Rather, like the back of an idol, it
    also had a rough side. Whether the fruits of affluence and independence were
    sour or sweet, one had to pay a price to get them. The two of them do not just
    observe others, they also see themselves mirrored in the eyes of others. Azam
    tells Shamsul that he, Shamsul, is lucky. And Medina tells Rabeya that Shamsul
    must be regarded as an intelligent man since in just two and a half years he
    has established his business and bought a place of his own, so Rabeya must
    count herself a fortunate woman. It’s the old tale of the two banks of a river,
    each side yearning for the other. Nothing was final, and there was no end to
    human desire.



     



    After earning money for her own work,
    Rabeya was slowly gaining self-confidence and the core of her personality was
    becoming strong, but she is scared when she hears that Medina is going back to
    the homeland. Medina was the person she had relied on in a kinless environment.
    Rabeya feels that her carefully constructed defences are crumbling. Meanwhile,
    Shamsul also receives a profound shock when one Sunday morning he goes to open
    his shop and finds that there has been a big robbery there overnight. The shock
    to his mind is worse than the financial loss. What had seemed a smooth road for
    making progress suddenly resembles the heaving back of a huge sea monster that
    could cast him aside any moment and let him sink to the bottom. Shamsul is so
    upset that he sheds his ego and rushes to Rabeya; the lion no longer growls
    within him. Rabeya too asks her python to be quiet and surrenders herself to
    Shamsul.



     



    Shamsul had dreamt of a ground floor
    ‘condo’ with two rooms. There would be a small piece of land in front of it
    where he would grow red spinach, green chillis, and a puin creeper on a
    trellis. The plants would grow like him, remind him of the land left behind,
    spread roots in the new soil and branches and leaves towards the sky. His
    father used to tell him that one could not improve one’s lot unless one settled
    down in a place and spread one’s roots slowly. But his father and mother were
    across the seas in the country left behind; there was only one person who could
    water his roots in the new country and fix the trellis with care, and that was
    Rabeya. Equally, Rabeya feels that however great the attraction of earning and
    spending her own money, or buying a ticket for going home, the grocery that
    Shamsul had built bit by bit over the past two years had become a part of her
    existence as well. Though she had told Shamsul that it was his shop, she
    could not bear the thought of the shop coming to any harm. No matter how much
    she missed the homeland, she did not wish to return to it with a basket of
    failures on her head. She overcomes her sense of hurt and realizes that Shamsul
    is her true refuge; only he could provide her with a home to return to.



     



    So Shamsul and Rabeya stay together. They
    are a rustic couple who had wanted to change, but don’t. It is because they do
    not change that they do not abandon each other. They do not float away like
    straw in the strong currents of a materialistic world, but clinging to each
    other, they survive.



     



    In this novel, Dilara Hashem seems to
    surpass herself. She goes outside the circle of her own social class and gives
    us a picture of the lives of migrant working-class Bengalis which is both vivid
    and clear. There is not a hint of anything artificial anywhere. Usually her
    novels are crowded with well-educated, highly placed professionals. From that
    point of view, Sinho o Ajogar is a notable exception. The novelist takes
    great care with the language of her dialogues. We find three styles of speaking
    in this book. First, Shamsul and Rabeya speak to each other in the dialect of
    the Dhaka region. Secondly, Medina and Azam and other Bengalis speak in a
    polite Bengali idiom, though Shamsul and Rabeya speak to them in their own
    dialect. Thirdly there is some broken English with which Shamsul and Rabeya
    manage their exchanges with the world outside the Bengali circle. But it is the
    dialogues between Shamsul and Rabeya in their dialect that occupy the most
    space. This creates quite a contrast between these two characters and their
    surroundings, making the characters appear sharper.



     



    In this respect one could compare and
    contrast this novel with another novel of our times which has created a stir:
    Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003). Though Chanu, the husband of the
    heroine, Nazneen, is very proud of his education, Nazneen has come from a
    working-class Bangladeshi family. Her sister Hasina works in a garment factory.
    The two sisters correspond, exchanging their news and views. Amazingly, the
    texts that Monica Ali assigns to Hasina are written in broken sentences, in
    incorrect English. Most certainly, a girl from rural Bangladesh would not write
    letters to her sister in London in English; she would definitely write her
    letters in Bengali. The language might be colloquial, in their own dialect, and
    she might make a few spelling mistakes, but why would it be ungrammatical?
    If her language is represented by ungrammatical English, does it not mock her?
    Does it not also entail the mockery of a whole group of people who speak their
    language with a local accent? The rugged particularities of their ethnic
    identity are thereby obliterated and levelled by the bulldozer of a single
    language. And this is where Dilara’s novel is different. The colloquial
    language that Shamsul and Rabeya speak reflects their identity, personality,
    the grit of their character. Dilara thus makes a special and original statement
    on migrant Bengali life in this novel.



     



    The two novels by Ketaki and Dilara that I
    have chosen to look at closely in this paper may appear more dissimilar than
    similar, but I have deliberately chosen these two examples to indicate the range
    and variety of experiences in the lives of Bengalis in diaspora. At the same
    time, there are also some resonances between them in the interest taken in both
    works in dialect. Dilara’s use of Dhaka dialect is matched by Ketaki’s interest
    in Ladino: Anamika’s translation of Ladino folk songs into Bengali restores
    Emilia’s pride in her mother tongue. The other point to remember is that though
    this particular novel of Ketaki’s does not delve into working-class life in the
    way Sinho o Ajogar does, her first, third, and fourth novels engage with
    British working-class life in a significant way. All in all, I hope I have been
    able to demonstrate that the lives of Bengalis in diaspora have added a whole
    new territory to Bengali literature.



     



    [Developed from a presentation made at the International
    Gender Studies Centre, Oxford, in the summer term of 2008.]











    [1]
    Tagore, Rabindranath, ‘Kalantar’, in Kalantar, Rabindra-rachanabali,
    the older Visvabharati edition, Vol. 24, p 244. All translations from Bengali
    in this essay are mine. The word ‘kalantar’ means ‘the end of one era and the
    beginning of another’,







    [2] Tölölyan,
    Khachig, ‘Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational
    Moment’, Diaspora 5:1, 1996, p. 9.







    [3]
    Brown, Judith M., Global South Asians: Introducing the Modern Diaspora, CambridgeUniversity Press, First South Asian
    Edition, 2007, p. 5.







    [4]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, ‘The Practice of Bilingualism in Literary Writing: A
    Personal Perspective’, in Dutta Gupta, Pranati and Ray, Susmita (ed.), Indian
    Writing in English: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
    , VivekanandaCollege, Calcutta, 2006, p. 21.







    [5]
    Ibid., p. 23.







    [6]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Night’s Sunlight, Virgilio Libro, Kidlington,
    Oxon., 2000, Translator’s Prologue, p. iv.







    [7] Ibid.







    [8]
    Cheesman, Tom, in the ‘Critical Opinions’ section of the play’s website,
    http://www.nightssunlight.co.uk. Tom Cheesman was one of the organizers of the
    ‘Writing Diasporas’ conference at the University of Wales, Swansea, where the
    English production of the play was premièred in 2000 at the campus theatre.







    [9]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, interviewed by Sumana Das Sur, Agrobeej, 1: 1,
    June 2007, p. 270.







    [10]
    Ibid., pp. 270-72.







    [11]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney,
    Navana, Calcutta,
    1985, ‘Mukhabandha’ (Foreword).







    [12]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Amar Rabindranath-Victoria-bishayak Boidutir Sutrey’, Chalanta
    Nirman
    , Dey’s Publishing, Calcutta,
    2005, p. 184.







    [13]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op.
    cit., p. 89.







    [14]
    Ibid., pp. 32-33.







    [15] Tölölyan,
    Khachig, article cited, pp. 11-12.







    [16]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op.
    cit., p. 92.







    [17]
    Ibid., p. 112.







    [18] Tölölyan,
    Khachig, article cited, pp. 7-8.







    [19]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op.
    cit., p. 74.







    [20]
    Ibid., pp. 116-17.







    [21]
    Ibid., p. 117.







    [22]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, ‘Prachina o Nabina’, Chalanta Nirman, op. cit.,
    p. 299. The phrase ‘awakening of the fountain’ refers to Tagore’s important
    poem, ‘Nirjharer Swapnobhango’.







    [23]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op. cit.,
    pp. 281-82.







    [24]
    Ibid., p. 300. The key Indian philosophical words sadhana and tapasya
    have been left as they are.







    [25]
    Quoted in ibid., p. 291. Key philosophical words have again been left
    untranslated.







    [26] At
    this point, in stead of re-translating from the Bengali in Ketaki’s Rabindranath
    o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney
    , op. cit., I am quoting directly from Tagore’s
    English words as given in Ketaki’s In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden:
    Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo
    (Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, 1988, p.
    392), the academic study where the Tagore-Ocampo correspondence is gathered
    together and edited by her.







    [27]
    Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op.
    cit., p. 302.







    [28]
    Quoted in Ibid., p. 306.







    [29] Tölölyan,
    Khachig, article cited, p. 14.







    [30]
    Quoted in Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney,
    op. cit., p 123.







    [31]
    Brown, Judith M., Global South Asians: Introducing the Modern Diaspora,
    op. cit., p. 61.







    [32]
    Hashem, Dilara, Sinho o Ajogar, Maola Brothers, Dhaka,
    2006, p. 70.



     







    © Sumana Das Sur




    Published March, 2011




    (*) Photograph of Amiya Chakravarty and Buddhadeva Bose, courtesy Sumita Chakraborty.
















    Sumana Das Sur was born in 1972 and received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D degrees from Jadavpur University ...
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