A fascinating book in so many ways - which I was lucky to find, though at quite a price, in a London bookshop. It's a graphic first-hand account of the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943, written by the remarkable Freda Bedi, with unsettling photographs and an arresting dust jacket designed by Sobha Singh
.Freda Bedi was an English woman (she was born Freda Houlston) who at Oxford met and married a Punjabi Sikh, B.P.L. 'Baba' Bedi. She moved with him to Lahore, became an active Indian nationalist and was, like her husband, a communist.
I've written about Freda Bedi before
, and there are photographs of her elsewhere on this site
.Both Baba and Freda Bedi were keenly involved in Kashmiri politics in the 1940s, supporters of Sheikh Abdullah and his National Conference -
indeed Baba Bedi is said to have drafted the party's distinctly radical 'New Kashmir' manifesto. Later Freda Bedi
embraced Tibetan Buddhism and became a renowned woman religious.In the first half of the 1940s, Freda Bedi wrote for 'The Tribune' and other titles , and two books of her journalism were published, both now very hard to find - the first was Behind the Mud Walls, followed in 1944 by Bengal Lamenting. The wartime famine in Bengal was one of the great calamities of modern India
. Millions died. 'This small book', Freda Bedi wrote in the foreword to Bengal Lamenting
, 'is the record of the month of January, 1944, which I spent touring the most afflicted districts of famine-stricken Bengal.' By then the famine had brought in its wake epidemic and disease, and Freda Bedi drew a sharp political lesson from the agony and wretchedness she encountered:The book is more than a cry of pain, a call to pity, a picture of another tidal wave of tears that has wrenched itself up from the ocean of human misery. It is a demand for reconsideration on a national scale of a problem that cannot be localised, a plea for unity in the face of chaos, one more thrust of the pen for the right of every Bengali and every Indian to see his destiny guided by patriots in a National Government of the People.
The cover is a powerful work by Sobha Singh
, then active in the progressive artists' movement and later well known for his paintings of the Sikh gurus.
Five mounted photographs are pinned into the book - harrowing scenes of the suffering caused by famine.
Quite the most macabre and shocking is the image on the right, which I have deliberately kept small so that it doesn't upset casual browsers.
The caption reads: 'Memento Mori - death benefits the starving dog'.
It's strange how Partition can disrupt political cultures so entirely - like twins being separated in adolescence, the same stock can have hugely different outcomes. Take Punjab - united prior to 1947 by a common language and a syncretic culture, Partition has cast the two halves if Punjab into hugely different political trajectories. Or Bengal on the other flank of the sub-continent. West Bengal turbulently pluralist - while Bangladesh has never quite found its feet, and much as in Pakistan, the army is the dominant institution.
All this is prompted by reading two pieces of journalism this weekend about the two Bengals. Ian Jack in the Guardian
has been reading a revisionist history of Bangladesh - by an academic, a member of the Bose parivar, whose roots lie in West Bengal. He lavishes praise on Sarmila Bose's Dead Reckoning. 'As all good history tends to do, it complicates and contradicts the heroic narrative of national struggle.' Her book - I've just started reading it and it is wonderfully well written - challenges the conventional Bangladeshi nationalist account of the killings amid which the nation was born. She suggests that the massacres by the Pakistani army and its sympathisers were nothing like as bloody as often recounted - and that the killing of Bengali Hindus and of Urdu-speaking Biharis by advocates of Bangladeshi independence were much more substantial that previously imagined.The other article is Amit Chaudhuri's Diary in the London Review of Books
- a chronicle of the final demise of 34 years of Communist-led state government in India's West Bengal. Communist dominance was an indirect consequence of Partition. Bengali Communists won the loyalty of East Bengali refugees - not their only 'vote bank', in Indian political parlance, but an important one. In the last few days, Communist croneyism has been voted out in favour of the shrill populism of Mamata Bannerjee, West Bengal's Joan of Arc (my analogy not Amit Chaudhuri's).Reading it all, I pine for Alimuddin Street and Chowringhee and Calcutta's Maidan - and for that sight as you fly in to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport of 'the palm and plantain trees, low houses and ponds'.
As they say in the west: 'Oh, Calcutta!'