Tale of a Migrant City: CRG’s documentary on refugee colonies

CRG’s documentary film (second in the series Calcutta: Migrant City) seeks to answer a bunch of questions: Who were the refugees to West Bengal? What caste/ class groups did those settling in South Calcutta belong to? What was the land they settled on like? What was the politics and economics of this settlement? Who used to live in this land before the refugees came in? Where did they go? How is the refugee colony represented in literature and cinema? How did they refugee women eke out their own identity in the big city? What part did they play in refugee movements? And lastly–where does the refugee colony stand today vis a vis the neoliberal flows of capital? Shreya Das contextualises this film in the light of existing, canonical works in Partition Studies.

Benedict Anderson, in his Imagined Communities depicts the nation as a “socially constructed community, imagined” by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. This imagined nationalism violently manifested itself in The Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, leading to a bloodthirsty partition of the nation and a history of bitterness between the two major religious communities in the Indian subcontinent. The partition also brought along the harrowing experience of migration with it. As a result, violence erupted, a reign of terror ensued, streets turned into the rivers of blood and the idea of “home” gradually dismantled. Ian Talbot has compared the Indian experience of partition with the Holocaust during the World War ii (The Partition of India). In a much similar manner, Gyanendra Pandey says, “In India and Pakistan violence and community constitute each-other”, where the narratives of violent encounters become necessary for building a sense of community (Remembering Partition).

Calcutta research Group’s documentary, “Ek Porijayi Sohorer Itikotha” (“Tale of a Migrant City”) is now availble on youtube for viewing and dissemination.

While the partition between the contemporary West Pakistan and Punjab saw a much higher rate of migration, panic and fatality, the partition between the East Pakistan and West Bengal did not experience migration and violence in that magnitude. Rather the “Bastuharas” of East Pakistan came to India in different phases of migration, owing to the ongoing political tension between the West and the East Pakistan. In the 1950s approximately 3 million East Pakistani Bengali Hindus migrated to India, whereas during the Bengal Liberation War, i.e. in the 1970s the number rose to 6 million (approx.). Yet the migration from East to West Bengal did not stop with the liberation of Bangladesh. People, especially Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh kept on coming in even the 1980s, which figured roughly around 8 million people. Though the refugees scattered throughout the different states of India, including Tripura, Assam, Odisha, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Mumbai, a majority of people settled in South Calcutta. In popular culture too, the effect of this overwhelming refugee problem was quite evident. For instance, Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy of Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962) largely deal with the aspirations and frustrations of East Pakistani refugees in and nearby Calcutta, while focusing on the necessity for a more inclusive sort of nation-building.

Urvashi Butalia in her The Other Side of Silence has pointed out how during the partition, women’s body became a site for inflicting communal and national violence. Yet, after the migration, in this new-found idea of “home”, the role of women became very important to restore the familiar domesticity of life. Due to the massive influx of population, securing jobs became increasingly difficult for the refugees. Hence, women had to step out for jobs, which ironically did not guarantee their independence, but brought out the financial necessity of the time. Neeta in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara is an ideal example of a working refugee woman, who was expected to adhere by the rules of a patriarchal household, despite being the sole bread-earning member of it.

This documentary, Ek Porijayii Shohorer Itikatha (Tale of a Migrant City), tries to map the aftermath of the mass-migration. It retraces the history of assimilation of the refugees in The City of Joy. What is striking in this project, is the conflicting idea of “home” in the migrants. The sense of dislocation from a familiar space is still disturbing for them with a vivid memory of their past residence and friends, that they were forced to leave behind. The success of the documentary lies in capturing that pang of separation and the desperate need to cope with the new surroundings, much after Amitav Ghosh’s fashion in The Shadow Lines.

Shreya Das is a Post Graduate student of English at Delhi University. She can be reached at das.shreya97@gmail.com.

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