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...
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.” 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.”
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.
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.”
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.” 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.
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” – 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 ...” 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...” 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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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 ...” 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.” 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” – 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 ...”
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 ...” 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.” 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.
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.”
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.]
 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’,
 Tölölyan, Khachig, ‘Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment’, Diaspora 5:1, 1996, p. 9.
Brown, Judith M., Global South Asians: Introducing the Modern Diaspora,
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,
 Ibid., p. 23.
 Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Night’s Sunlight, Virgilio Libro, Kidlington, Oxon., 2000, Translator’s Prologue, p. iv.
 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.
 Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, interviewed by Sumana Das Sur, Agrobeej, 1: 1, June 2007, p. 270.
 Ibid., pp. 270-72.
Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney,
Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Amar Rabindranath-Victoria-bishayak Boidutir Sutrey’, Chalanta
Nirman, Dey’s Publishing,
 Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op. cit., p. 89.
 Ibid., pp. 32-33.
 Tölölyan, Khachig, article cited, pp. 11-12.
 Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op. cit., p. 92.
 Ibid., p. 112.
 Tölölyan, Khachig, article cited, pp. 7-8.
 Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op. cit., p. 74.
 Ibid., pp. 116-17.
 Ibid., p. 117.
 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’.
 Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op. cit., pp. 281-82.
 Ibid., p. 300. The key Indian philosophical words sadhana and tapasya have been left as they are.
 Quoted in ibid., p. 291. Key philosophical words have again been left untranslated.
 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.
 Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op. cit., p. 302.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 306.
 Tölölyan, Khachig, article cited, p. 14.
 Quoted in Dyson, Ketaki Kushari, Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, op. cit., p 123.
 Brown, Judith M., Global South Asians: Introducing the Modern Diaspora, op. cit., p. 61.
Hashem, Dilara, Sinho o Ajogar, Maola Brothers,
© Sumana Das Sur
Published March, 2011