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Book Name : Blood Island-An Oral History Of The Marichjhapi Massacre

Author Name : Deep Halder

Published By : Harper Collins

An oral record of the politics of refugee diaspora!

We all know of the exodus after partition - but on the Western front - when India was divided between India and Pakistan on the eve of Independence; how many of us know of another partition on the Eastern front of India? In what was known as East Pakistan, which later became an independent country, Bangladesh, there was an exodus too. As Bangladesh later became a Muslim dominated country, the Hindus living there preferred to migrate to India.

The partition of Bengal was complex and so was the creation of Bangladesh. The upper caste Bengali Hindus migrated to India first, but the Namasudra Bengalis, a lower caste community, migrated after things got violent for them in Bangladesh. Blood Island-An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre, tells the tale of these refugees in India. How they were promised land and livelihood and then cheated out of it. And not just that. They were massacred. The leftist government first promised shelter and accommodation to the hapless refugees, but after coming to power, they changed their policy and betrayed the very people who supported them as they now seemed as 'burden' to the state.

The author as I know him

Deep Halder, the author, a journalist, does what he does best; that is, dig deep and bring out something that has been consigned to the backburner of history pages. Marichjhapi, an island in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, where the massacre happened in 1978, almost four decades ago, has almost no mention in history books and is obviously not common knowledge. In such a scenario, this is an important book.

I know Deep Halder from the time he was heading a newspaper for which I worked for two years. I knew he was writing a book, but did not know what it was about. Knowing him I can expect nothing less from him.

His methodology

He has recorded oral history. There is nothing more authentic than this form for such a narrative. He starts on an emotional note about how he got to know about Marichjhapi from a young house-guest named Mana, who is the daughter of one of the activists living in Marichjhapi. Then he moves on to the other eight people who were witnesses to the Marichjhapi massacre. Most of them are willing tellers as they are survivors, chroniclers and fighters. Those who are unwilling obviously owe allegiance to the former state machinery.

So, we have Jyotirmoy Mondal, a government official who saves witches (read who works for the welfare of widows); Safal Halder, a survivor; Sukhoranjan Sengupta, a journalist; Niranjan Haldar, a newsman; and Sakya Sen, an advocate, who in his youth had fought for the hunted of Marichjhapi. Chapter Six is on Mana Golder, a house-guest, who the author fondly remembers. She was actually hiding from the police as her father, Rangalal Goldar, was a top leader of Refugee Welfare Committee. Chapter Seven tells us about Santosh Sarkar, a survivor who was hero to the refugee women and men. All of the above retell their accounts of the refugees while Chapter Eight, which features Kanti Ganguly, a minister of Sundarbans affairs in the Jyoti Basu government, puts the death toll at eight or ten during the operation. This chapter also mentions Amiya Kumar Samanta, the Superintendent of Police who spearheaded Operation Marichjhapi and refused to meet the author, saying that only one adivasi woman was killed during the operation. Finally, Chapter Nine recounts the story of Manoranjan Byapari, a rickshaw puller once who became a writer and a Naxal having survived the bullet.

The author provides a good mix of accounts that are eye-opening, interesting, shocking and tug-at-your-heart kinds - all at the same time. Very much like any refugee stories the world over!

What I liked

The book reads like reportage. It is a well-written record of all the people the author has personally interviewed. Each chapter has a picture of the person speaking and the end has the month and the year along with the location of the interview. These details ooze authenticity.

I also see an emotional side of the author when he writes about Mana, his childhood memories of the house-guest from Marichjhapi and the tales she recounted.

That the author has actually travelled to ground zero, i.e., Marichjhapi island, bears testimony to his serious involvement with the subject and the passion contained in his memories of the place. He writes and I quote, “Mana’s Marichjhapi. Manoranjan’s Marichjhapi. Mine too.” - This when he sees Marichjhapi for the first time from the other bank of the river.

My take

This book highlights one wrong and rights it. All I can say is history is not what it seems. There are many layers. This book by Deep Halder is one such effort to unearth a layer. This book was necessary as history is not just about what the ruling hierarchy of the day wants it to be, rather it is a record of all happenings, whether they are on the right or wrong side of the ruling hierarchy.

In his chapter on Niranjan Haldar, the author writes he was embarrassed of his early days when Niranjan Haldar says, “Communism lands you in all kinds of trouble. You should remember your college days.” Well, I say he shouldn’t be embarrassed as youth is for fiery speeches, fire in the eyes and bellies, and attitude. Not very unlike the youth of today who dream of changing the world order.

After reading the book I feel Deep Halder has the calibre to write fiction. Like Amitav Ghosh who creates his fictitious world in and around Bengal, Bihar and Bangladesh.

Candid Moments