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Unheard Stories of Partitioned Lives

Praskanva Sinharay ( is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

Stories of Social Awakening: Reflections of Dalit Refugee Lives of Bengal by Jatin Bala/(foreword by Antonia Navarro-Tejero, edited by Jaydeep Sarangi), Authorspress, New Delhi, 2017; pp 183, 350.

The refugee is a central political figure in contemporary times. In a world where transfer of populations accompanied by unprecedented violence and sponsored by powerful political actors is being increasingly normalised, a Bengali Dalit writer, himself a refugee, Jatin Bala dedicates his new book titled Stories of Social Awakening: Reflections of Dalit Refugee Lives of Bengal to “all displaced persons who have been forced to cross national boundaries.” The book appears at a crucial moment when millions of people are either forced or voluntarily choose to cross national boundaries everyday—due to the gnawing consequences of political, religious, environmental or economic conditions—in search of new, alien lands, simply to survive.

Bala, in this book, narrates different tales of survival of those who had witnessed one of the highest population transfers in history: partition of Bengal. It is a collection of 12 stories translated from Bengali. The first 11 of these are from the original Samaj Chetanar Galpo (The Story of Consciousness of Society) published by Chaturtha Duniya (The Fourth World)1 in 2012, and the 12th is an English translation that was first published in Muse India (November–December 2012) and has been reprinted here. Edited by Jaydeep Sarangi, faculty of English at Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri College in Kolkata, the book begins with his introduction of the author, followed by a discussion on the questions of caste and migration in context of Bengal as reflected in Bengali Dalit literature. The stories, as Sarangi has put it, are “part of a literary movement or social change” (p 10). Antonia Navarro-Tejero, professor at the Universidad de Córdoba has written the foreword to the book.

The stories, on the one hand, provide a vivid description of the shared histories of horror, violence, and trauma of Dalit refugee families that had immigrated from East Bengal as a consequence of partition. On the other hand, Bala reflects on the myriad experiences of discrimination, inequality, and oppression encountered by these people in their everyday lives because of their status in the caste hierarchy. The book is an important text in the world of Bengali literature for three major reasons.

First, it is one of the few English translations of Dalit writings in Bangla2 apart from Kalyani Thakur’s Horse Series (2013) and Manohar Mouli Biswas’s Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal (2015). Bala has been associated with the Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha (BDSS) from its early days and has contributed extensively.3 However, this is his first translated work and, as Navarro-Tejero mentions in her foreword, the book is “an excellent gift for the English speaking world” (p 7) and thus caters to a wider readership outside Bengal. It also marks a significant milestone in the life of contemporary Bengali Dalit literature, and strengthens the ideological and political position of the Dalit literary movement within the Bengali literary establishment, which is almost exclusively controlled by the urban, upper-caste bhadralok and has consistently questioned the credibility of the former.

Second, the text is a crucial intervention in the realm of literature on partition of Bengal, which too had been dominated by the one-sided accounts and memoirs of the Bengali bhadralok, while the experiences of growing up as a Dalit refugee in and outside West Bengal have remained mostly undocumented and unknown. Outside the world of the bhadralok imagination, what partition means for the Dalit refugee families—who have continued to migrate in successive waves over the years and have encountered double marginalisation in terms of government policies and social relations amidst new environs—is what holds the stories together.

Finally, the text refuses to fit into any particular literary genre because of Bala’s unique style of writing. While some stories are works of fiction, others are autobiographical accounts. But, all of them are distinguishable by powerful political content expressed through the actions of the different characters in response to persistent inequalities and experiences of discrimination in a society that, in one instance in “The Story of Consciousness of Society” (pp 15–25), is described as a “labyrinth of darkness” (p 18).

Unlike most translated works, this collection offers translations of Bala’s stories by different translators in a single volume. The stories, therefore, differ in their language, style and flair throughout the text. Another crucial aspect is the social position of the translators, who are mostly university students and professors in West Bengal. This testifies to the growing academic interest in Bengali Dalit literature.

Narratives of Structural Violence

Thematically, the stories revolve around chilling narratives of “violence” in terms of colonial mapping, communal riots, crude legal–bureaucratic and police actions, atrocities of caste, racial discrimination, gender inequality, and poverty. In the story titled “Martyr” (pp 103–11), the description of a bus journey fascinates us where an old man, Dam Mandal, casually narrates to his fellow passengers the terrifying memories of partition riots, in one of which he lost a hand, but managed to survive thereafter. In another story, “The Two Ends of a Broken Bridge” (pp 70–87), the protagonist, a refugee from Jessore, bumps into an erstwhile neighbour and her family from East Bengal in a Bangaon–Sealdah local train after almost 50 years, who are now travelling from Bangladesh to Kolkata for medical treatment. With the joy of meeting old acquaintances, he recollects how partition had once suddenly antagonised these bosom neighbours into communal foes, but later everyone realised that “Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered equally in the course of the riots” (p 84).

In the autobiographical piece, “Reminiscences of Life in Refugee Camps” (pp 156–66), as well as in the story, “The Man Called Ratan” (pp 49–69), we encounter the narratives of structural violence unleashed on Dalit refugees: harassment by upper-caste officials visiting the dilapidated camps, the politics and rules around a nominal cash-dole provided to these families, the harsh policies of the Government of India to resettle them in Dandakaranya and elsewhere outside West Bengal, and their unsettled mobile lives constantly shifting from one camp to the other. The author himself, for instance, has grown up in three refugee camps in Kunti, Bhandarhati and Balagarh (p 172).

We also get a thorough description of Dalit lives—their food, clothing, occupations, phrases, slangs and songs—as well as the social relations and political economy of rural West Bengal. The central characters in the stories are the farmer, the carpenter, the daily labourer, the ferrywala, the widow, the domestic maid, the prostitute, and the vagabond, whose experiences of struggle as Dalit refugees are indistinguishable from those of his own. These stories expose the different shades of upper-caste violence at the level of everyday life. The forceful grabbing of crops by the local landlord in “Bloody Scythe” (pp 39–48), the pressure exerted by the moneylender in “The Fire of Deadened Starvation” (pp 97–102), the violence of Brahmins perpetuated on a local woman on the issue of entering the local Durga temple in “Akaipur in Flames” (pp 88–96) are some instances. Moreover, the refugees from East Bengal were discriminated using terms like Bangal/Ghoti,4 which we see when a character called Ratan gets abused by his colleagues as “kathbangal Namah Ratan Dhali” (p 50).

Although most of the characters are men, the protagonist of one story, “A Montage of Shadows” (pp 112–25), is a woman called Pakhi. She becomes a widow at a young age, starts working as a domestic maid and joins classes run by a local teacher to educate herself. Subsequently, she falls in love with the teacher, confronts the local coal factory owner when he attempts to rape her, and finally launches a literacy campaign in the village along with other women by revolting against the local men.

The concluding section of the book is an interview of the author with the editor. Here, Bala talks about his Ambedkarite politics, association with Dalit literature, both in Bengali and other languages, his own experience as a Dalit writer, and how he sees the future of the “Dalit literature movement” (p 179). As Bala puts it, the word “Dalit,”5 “etymologically derived from the word ‘dalan,’” “stands for an awareness of the everyday lived experiences of those human beings belonging to the lower strata of caste hierarchy” (pp 167–68). Dalit literature, thus, intends to articulate the manifold oppressions operative in a Brahminical social and political order. To conclude, apart from being a significant text in the world of Bengali Dalit literature, the “stories of social awakening” also demonstrate how to survive amidst difficult times.


1 Chaturtha Duniya (The Fourth World) is a pioneering journal of Bengali Dalit literature that has been published by the Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha (BDSS) since its formation in 1994. The BDSS is a forum of Dalit writers that documents and publishes Dalit literature in Bengali and organises regular events for the promotion of the same (Sinharay 2015).

2 In 2007, EPW published an article by Manoranjan Byapari and Meenakshi Mukherjee, which, since little was known about such writings, asked a question: “Is There Dalit Writing in Bangla?” The article unravelled the vast archive of Bengali Dalit writings that systematically had been marginalised and denied recognition by the dominant urban, upper-caste literary establishment (Byapari and Mukherjee 2007).

3 Bala’s autobiography, Shikor Cheera Jibon (Uprooted Life) was published in 2010 and he has edited a number of periodicals Ashukh, Balmiki, Mushayera, Chhiyanobbui, Choturtho Duniya, and Nikhil Bharat (Bala 2014).

4 The people from East Bengal are called Bangals, whereas those who originally belong to West Bengal are referred as Ghotis.

5 The category “Dalit” was first used by B R Ambedkar himself in his fortnightly Bahishkruit Bharat (Guru 1998: 16). However, the terms dalit and paddalit were used in the 1920s, as Anupama Rao argued, and “the terms only gained traction and came into common usage in the 1970s” (Rao 2009: 290).


Bala, Jatin (2014): “Interview: Jaydeep Sarangi in Conversation with Jatin Bala: An Account of Refugee Dalit Life,” by Jaydeep Sarangi, Lingaya’s International Refereed Journal of English Language & Literature, No 2, July–August, viewed on 22 September 2017,

Byapari, Manoranjan and Meenakshi Mukherjee (2007): “Is There Dalit Writing in Bangla?,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 41, pp 4116–20.

Biswas, Manohar Mouli (2015): Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal, Stree: Kolkata.

Guru, Gopal (1998): “The Politics of Naming,” Seminar, No 471.

Rao, A (2009): The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India, Permanent Black: India.

Sinharay, Praskanva (2015): “The Dalit Literary Movement in West Bengal,” Bangla Journal, 13th Year 21st Issue (December).

Thakur, Kalyani (2013): Horse Series, Pratyush Publication: Kolkata.

Updated On : 17th Oct, 2017


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