What a powerful book this is! Published in May 1944, Ela Sen's short stories - 'all culled from real life' - represent the profound tragedy and misery of the famine which ravaged Bengal in 1943 and claimed up to three million lives. The text is overshadowed, however, by the deeply shocking and emotive images of Zainul Abedin. 'Drawings from life', the book asserted. He used Chinese ink and paper made from rags to capture these desperate depictions of the human impact of famine. They are both the starkest images of the famine, and the defining work of one of Bangladesh's most highly regarded artists.
Zainul Abedin was still in his twenties when he made these drawings - some of the originals are in the British Museum, whose website records that Ela Sen's book was banned by the British authorities, presumably because of its impact on wartime morale. There is no doubt that British alarm about the prospect of a Japanese invasion of Bengal from Burma - and so their determination to ensure that stocks of grain and boats for river transport couldn't fall into the enemy's hands - contributed to the scale of the tragedy.
There are about a dozen Zainul Abedin drawings in the book, most of them spread over a double page. This image of a young child seeking sustenance from an emaciated and dying mother bring to mind the similar - and similarly unsettling - artwork of Sobha Singh.
This image - which I have blogged about before - was also published to accompany a first-hand account of the famine ... in this case the journalism of Freda Bedi for 'The Tribune', which was published as Bengal Lamenting. And in this book too, the image is more haunting than the words.
In the 1940s, both Zainul Abedin and Sobha Singh had links to the progressive writers' movement, and were clearly on the left. Abedin has come to be regarded as the founding father of modern art in Bangladesh. He died in May 1976.
I've been able to find out much less about Ela Sen - if you can help, do get in touch.
Posting here some the Facebook discussion prompted by this blog:
Dr Pinaki Sengupta
I had an aunt called Ela Sen born approximately around 1907 and died around 1984. She was a Professor of English in a Calcutta college and was married to Narendranath Sengupta who was the Principal of the Calcutta Technical School. I wonder if she was the author of this book. I know that she was a freedom fighter as was her uncle Makhan lal Sen. Would be glad to have any information. Thanks.
It could be though this site suggests Ela Sen the author was born in 1899 - though that could be an estimate http://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n89271911/
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Ela Sen was the daughter of Mrigendralal Mitter. Sen was her first husband. She married again a British journalist called Alec Reid, News Editor of The Statesman, Calcutta, and both of them later moved to London where she died in (I think) the 1970s. I doubt if she was a freedom fighter but I do know she was friendly with Manikuntala Sen (no relation), Jolly Kaul's wife, both of the CPI. Ela was convenor of the Mahila Atnorakhya Samity.
Lila Das Gupta
Andy, Darkening Days was published by my father 1944.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Are you Susil Gupta's daughter? I never met him but one of the first novels I read as a child was Marriage of Chiffon. My parents knew Susil Gupta, Pratap Bonnerjee was a family friend, and his brother Ajoy married my first cousin, Neela.
I am pleased to inform you that I made a documentary film 'Bengal Shadows' with Joy Banerjee. An investigation on the 1943 Bengal Famine. Please post your comments on Facebook of the film. Many thanks. Partho
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