Book Review: Bhaswati Ghosh’s ‘Victory Colony, 1950’

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By Anindita Das

Bhaswati Ghosh’s debut novel Victory Colony, 1950 is a story of bereavement, estrangement, and resilience in the backdrop of the 1947 Partition. Significantly, this is one of the very few works in the gamut of Indian Writing in English, vis-à-vis the setting being the Partition. Though Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines explores the Partition theme, especially its aftermath and its impact on the diaspora grappling with the question of nationalism and national identity, Victory Colony, 1950, thrusts its characters, particularly Amala, the protagonist, in the vortex of the catastrophe from where begins her trials and tribulations.

The conflict of the novel is struck right at the outset when Amala loses her brother Kartik, her only surviving kin, in the chaotic Sealdah station. Thereafter, she reluctantly moves to a refugee camp in the southern part of the city. Ghosh depicts a rather graphic picture of the camp – of its squalor, its detritus, its stench. It is perhaps done purposely to jolt the readers from their comfort zone, to paint a picture of the hardship undergone by the refugees where they were deprived of even basic amenities like hygiene and sanitation. The description of camp life in the initial chapters may apparently appear uneventful, the narrative may even become stagnant at times for nothing much happens apart from squabbles over gruel and young women taking sewing and crocheting lessons. But this is precisely the purpose of the author – to present the monotony, the drudgery and the sheer despair of a refugee camp. Yet what rises amidst this squalor and despair is the human spirit – of dignity, of resilience, of never giving up – represented collectively by the refugees and individually by Amala.

The novel, unfortunately, fails to document the conflict between the ghotis and bangals, a major bone of contention in post-Partition Calcutta when the bangals (refugees) were seen through the prism of suspicion and xenophobia by the ghotis (natives of West Bengal). However, this absence also allows the author to play on the camaraderie between the East Bengalis and the West Bengalis, the latter represented mainly through Manas, another protagonist, and Chitra, the compassionate mother-figure to the bereaved girls. Manas, heir to significant wealth, is characterised with an incredulous selflessness and benevolence, thereby paving the way for the blossoming of romance between him and Amala. It is with his unflinching help that Amala and the other refugees are successful in making the eponymous Victory Colony their home. Manas’ diary entries, though sporadic, are almost like a double narrative running parallelly – documenting, internalising his battles that he faces every day in the camp and life in general.

Though a Partition story, images of violence or bloodshed is conspicuous by their absence, something that Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is replete with. There are passing references like “bodies of her (Amala’s) parents lying motionless on the ground as Amala and Kartik came back from the house of the bauls” or “tiny corpses were flung into a nearby forest for wild animals to feast on.” Ghosh’s style of writing is subtle yet effective, enough to drive home her point. Though an easy read, there are patches of purple prose in the narrative like “The evening carried not the day’s dust but its ashes in its folds” that may prompt the reader to pause and ponder over the usage of metaphors.

Calcutta looms large in the novel. The city itself becomes a character as the readers, along with the characters, travel from Ultadanga in the north to Dhakuria in the south. The sight, the smell, the sound of the city come alive in Ghosh’s meticulous description. Reading this book is like reading a Bengali novel in translation. As such the narrative is peppered with the Bengali tongue, with dialects parochial to districts on either side of the border – ‘zamu’, ‘chara-pona’, ‘phik phik hashi’ – and yet not for once does the reading become jarring. It is these minute details that make the novel a delightful read, one the reader can easily relate to. It is also this that leaves the readers wanting for more, for when the premise is as historical and momentous as the Partition, the readers are naturally hungry for more anecdotes, like the details of Amala’s predicaments while crossing over a hastily drawn, international border, bristling with communal strife or the preparedness or unpreparedness of the government in India in tackling such a huge exodus. Certainly a passing mention at the fag end of the novel of a ‘thorough search’ that the security personnel made Amala go through or a general reference to the Indian government’s apathy towards the refugees is not enough to satisfy a reader’s curiosity. Additionally, it would have also allowed the author to make her characters more complex than they are.

Apart from these minor lacks, the novel is successful in connecting with its readers for its narration, detail, development of the plot, but most importantly for depicting the human spirit that can triumph over all obstacles.

Bio:
Anindita Das is incurably lazy. A dreamer and a habitual procrastinator, she escapes to the hills whenever she can steal time. When she is not reading, she is writing and vice versa. When she is doing neither she is travelling with her partner in crime, her husband. For her living, she teaches English. She loves her cup of Darjeeling.

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