In Conversation with Bhaswati Ghosh…

Bhaswati Ghosh, author of Victory Colony 1950 talks about her debut novel and other facets of writing and craft with Sayan Aich Bhowmik.

 How did you conceive Victory Colony, 1950?

Sometime in the first decade of this century, an editor from a then-nascent publishing house asked me if I wanted to pitch her a fiction book. Not a lot of my writing had been published yet, and while the idea of a novel seemed daunting, I wanted to give it a go. ‘Victory Colony, 1950’ came to me through a familial and literary inheritance. My maternal grandmother, Amiya Sen, who wrote in Bengali, had penned a number of short stories that centred around the aftermath of India’s partition, particularly in the way it affected refugees from East Pakistan. One such story, which resulted in the kind of horrific tragedy that is often associated with Partition, didn’t leave me. I wanted to re-imagine the fate the of the young refugee woman at the centre of the story. That’s how Victory Colony, 1950 took seed in my mind.

Generally, in most households/ families in North and Eastern India, there are stories and memories related to the Partition of India. These stories have been passed on from one generation to the other almost like a family heirloom. Has there been any such influence or stories that were there in your immediate family?

You know, I feel this theme — of the stories of displacement brought on by the Partition — has not just been passed on to subsequent generations by those directly impacted by it, but it has in fact entered our bloodstream; so constant is its presence. Speaking personally, my grandparents lost their home and belongings in Barisal, which went to East Pakistan in 1947. In that sense, I was a third-generation refugee myself. I grew up listening to stories my grandmother related on her life in Barisal – about its riverine beauty and village camaraderie, the freshness of its abundant fish, fruits and vegetables, about the strength of grandma’s mother’s personality, the quirkiness of her siblings, her soft-spoken, affectionate father, a kobiraj or ayurvedic practitioner. Simply by absorbing these stories I became a cohabitant of a place and culture I had never seen firsthand, yet knew intimately.

With time, this sense of displacement — forced and permanent — seems to have seeped into me. Now that I live in the West, I feel this even more acutely, even though my migration is largely voluntary.

Calcutta, for a very long time has been looked up to and considered as a bastion or guardian of all things cultural. And yet, there is this dark underbelly of casteism and a distrust of the minorities or the refugees amidst all the positives that the city displays, something that you have touched upon in the novel. How do you reconcile or come to terms with this Janus-faced nature of the city?

This distrust of the outsider isn’t limited to Calcutta, unfortunately. We see this across geographies affected by displacement, albeit in varying degrees. What makes Calcutta’s situation curious is the contradiction of its genteel, bhadralok sensibilities — mainly an upper-caste domain — on the one hand and its suspicion of the outsider, the bohiragoto on the other. The bhadralok community routinely prides itself for its intellectual “superiority” even as it exploits those belonging to lower castes. There is even denial of the existence of caste in Bengal’s social life by many, but one only has to look at the canons of the power structures — be they political, cultural, educational or the service sectors — to see the relentless dominance of upper castes. As Dalit Bengali literature becomes more accessible through the powerful narratives of writers like Manoranjan Byapari, Manohar Mouli Biswas and Adhir Biswas, the hypocrisies of upper caste Bengalis stand exposed. I tried to be conscious of this while writing Victory Colony, 1950 and feel the first step to reconciliation is the acknowledgement of casteist practices and mindsets perpetuated by the upper castes. Only once we consciously step out of the bubble of denial can there be any constructive engagement with this duality.

Food has an important and ubiquitous presence in your novel. In fact, in Bengal, more than anywhere else in the country, food and football have been considered as identity markers in the larger social fabric. How deliberate was choosing the culinary and the gastronomical as a trope and who/ what were the motivations behind it?

It was more spontaneous than deliberate, I think. Growing up as a refugee heir, I saw food surfacing over and over again as one of the remaining vestiges of a lost past in our family. My grandmother tried, as best as she could, to preserve the foods she grew up on, going so far as to plant fruits and vegetables like the guava, custard apple, papaya, bananas, Malabar spinach — whatever the little patch of backyard in her modest Delhi house allowed her. She would cook with coconut often and make traditional desserts like pithhas (crepes and pastries filled with goodies) and moa (puffed rice balls with sticky jaggery), pickles with chalta, amraa, koromcha and other delicacies from her mother’s kitchen.

While writing Victory Colony, 1950, food naturally found its way into the scenes. I also feel that in settings where women hold the centre stage, culinary references instinctively flow in. The hearth has been a woman’s most intimate dwelling place across cultures, but in a refugee environment, food becomes more than itself — it stands as a symbol of deprivation and memory as also of survival and hope.

Your debut novel has found acceptance in the institutionalized academic sphere. Your poems have been published in journals in India and abroad and you have also carved a niche for yourself as a translator. Which of these roles do you find the most challenging and rewarding and why?

I don’t see myself as anything or anybody in particular. I enjoy writing like someone else might paragliding or snorkeling. As a student of the craft, I’m keen to learn — by reading more, listening more, paying more attention to the everyday and the mysteries it holds. This quest is what makes me explore different genres; the idea is to play and have fun along the way while cheering for and learning from fellow travellers.

Writing a novel has been by far been the most challenging for me. I have no formal training in creative writing and didn’t have any inkling of what I’d taken on when I began writing the book. All writing is rewarding, though — whether it’s a four-line poem, a work of translation or writing a short story or an essay. At the same time, writing personal essays feels the most comfortable for me.

You have spent your growing up years outside Calcutta and now live in Canada. Your writings are characterised by this rootedness in the Bengali culture. There is a possibility that critics might label you as a diasporic writer. How would you react to that? And does the prospect of being labelled or boxed in a particular rubric bother you?

I have no use for labels of any kind and therefore don’t mind any that is or could be used for me. I was born and raised in New Delhi but went to a school where I studied Bengali until Class ten. I also participated in a lot of inter-school contests organized by the Bengal Association and other Bengali organizations in the national capital. At home, I had a grandmother who wrote in Bengali and a mother who dealt with Bengali language books at the Arts Library in Delhi University. On top of this, from the age of ten, I lived in Chittaranjan Park, which was established to house those who had been displaced from East Pakistan and found themselves in Delhi for work or other reasons. So essentially, I grew up in an atmosphere soaked in the Bengali spirit — be it the language, foods, festivals or other cultural markers.

I’ve now lived outside India for more than a decade, yet most of what I write is still set in India or South Asia. Even as I remain cognizant of what goes on around me in Canada, my current home, I find that my writing sensibilities are still more attuned to the stories hidden in an emerging from India.

How do you think the role and the responsibility of the author has changed? In a world driven by bigotry and religious divisiveness, do you think that there is an added onus upon a writer to transcend beyond being just a storyteller or a chronicler?

Sadly enough, this isn’t a new conundrum. Writers through different periods in history have had to contend with this question. I think writers can and do play a crucial role when it comes to examining social complexities. Even when they’re chronicling the trends and ruptures occurring around them, they are doing something bigger than mere record keeping. The greatest storytellers have always captivated readers with their riveting storytelling that doesn’t shy away from questioning norms or seeking succor amidst despondency and darkness.

What advice would you be giving to young aspiring authors?

The biggest advice, as a fellow traveler on the path, would be to keep walking, (or writing, to explain the metaphor). Writing a novel taught me many things, but I would count patience and perseverance to be the biggest lessons. It’s a painstakingly slow process, and there are many times during the journey when you would question the point of it all. To fight against that, you need to persevere and finish writing what you started. These two attributes also help when you’re ready to embark on the actual publishing trail – as you walk through the forest of rejections, you learn to fine-tune your manuscript and continue on the hike.

What surprised me the most was how much you can accomplish with even the smallest of daily writing goals.

It’s also important to pay attention to your growth arc as a writer. This is best done by reading widely – most importantly, by reading content other than the type of thing you’re writing. I remember how my grandmother, an excellent writer herself, would read everything from paper bags made out of old newspapers to the latest poetry book making waves in international circles to folk tales, philosophy, history, religion and everything else in between.

See what other writers are doing with the craft and what stands out to you.

Could you tell us a bit more about your future projects?

I’m currently working on a nonfiction book on Delhi, the city of my birth. It deals with the different communities who came to the capital for various reasons and made it their home. I also need to complete the translation of Aranyalipi, my grandmother’s nonfiction book on East Pakistani refugees who were sent to Dandakaranya under a government of India rehabilitation project. The seeds of my next novel are starting to germinate in my mind too, but it will be a while before I can get to that story.

Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her first book of fiction is ‘Victory Colony, 1950′. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English is ‘My Days with Ramkinkar Baij’. Bhaswati’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, including Indian Express, Scroll, The Wire, Literary Shanghai, Cargo Literary, Pithead Chapel, Warscapes, and The Maynard. Bhaswati lives in Ontario, Canada and is an editor with The Woman Inc. She is currently working on a nonfiction book on New Delhi, India. To learn more about her publications click here .

Sayan Aich Bhowmik is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Shirakole College, West Bengal. He is the co-editor of Plato’s Caves Online, a semi- academic space on literature, politics and art. He has recently published his debut collection of poems, I Will Come With A Lighthouse. 

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