Centre for Studies in Social Sciences

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over two years

Manas Ray, a sociologist and cultural studies scholar who has been researching urban histories in Kolkata, is at an interesting juncture in his intellectual career. The choice of writing two novels, in Bengali and English, on the journey of a refugee colony in post-Partition Kolkata, was determined by a number of concerns. Though the seeds of the project lay in Mr Ray’s anecdote essay, Growing up Refugee: On Memory and Locality, the methodological issue of writing social histories and the importance of memory in dealing with the fact of the Partition, have preoccupied him for a long time.

“The Partition,” Mr Ray observes, “has the ability to be naturally part of a configuration of a number of discourses: historical, psychoanalytical, fictional and journalistic. The foregrounding of Partition as a central, founding trope, however, has its problems: either it easily lends itself to metaphysics where it is the emblem of the eternal story of displacement and resettlement or it is viewed strictly as an empirical event – irreducibly authentic, ontologically given and immutably present.” Mr Ray will explore the possibilities of conjoining ethnography, history, memoir and fiction to tell the story of the journey of Netajinagar, a refugee colony in which he grew up. Perceiving a lack of ethnographic studies on the afterlife of the Partition, Mr Ray intends to excavate the “in-between-ness” and the overlaps between historical writing and the kinds of narratives generally associated with fiction “I plan to write a novel, not a memoir of history, for I am not sure whether everything I describe actually happened, or happened in the way I describe. More importantly, I need the liberty of fiction to dwell on the various levels of ambiguities that the time and events I describe were caught in,” says Mr Ray. Set in a refugee colony in Kolkata, the novel’s main thrust will be to investigate the locality’s slow journey into urbanity with all its ambiguities, contingencies and specificities. The novel will look at two basic questions: first, the abiding authority of the Bengali bhadralok over Bengal’s political and cultural life; and secondly, the question of the secular manifest in the realm of the everyday.

The novel is envisaged as a mélange of two registers: the author’s growing up as a refugee boy, and the refugee habitat’s protean journey from a piece of fallow land to becoming an integral part of post-colonial Kolkata. The first section will deal with the two decades (1950 – 1970) when the new community with a hybrid subjectivity comes into being. The second section would detail the political violence of the early 1970s as part of the wider tides of the Maoist challenge to the State. The third section would deal with the slow emergence of a post-colonial government space initiated by the sustained development efforts sponsored by the World Bank and the State.

Distinguishing between the experiences of the Partition at the two flanks of the country, Mr Ray observes that while the severing of Pakistan was marked by an almost total population transfer and brutal violence, the Partition in the east was less spectacular, but nevertheless signaled a flow of population that never really stopped. He feels that no attempt has been made to understand the impact, at a phenomenological level, of the gigantic changes the city of Kolkata underwent as a result of this Partition. Barring a few exceptions, there has been a resolute disinclination to investigate the communal question in Bengali literature and to a large extent in scholarly studies. Most instances of post-Partition literature, according to him, continued with the nostalgia for an empty homogenous time of Hindu-Muslim rural solidarity that was suddenly punctured by the contingent arrival of the Muslim League into the political arena. The memories that the immigrant community carries with it and the myriad ways it used to construct a new habitat will buttress the novel. Mr Ray sees the prose as carrying the bulk of the burden, travelling in and through those shattered memories to construct an archive of pain, anguish and hope, beyond the pale of psychological accounts. The narrator in the novel will not enjoy the privilege of an omniscient gaze. The first person narrative will frequently contradict its own points of view, be uncertain, and at times even a bit quixotic. The work will raise discussion about the interface between ethnography, history and fiction and the importance of subjective knowledge in the social sciences.

The first year will be dedicated to archival research of post-Partition newspaper reports and writing, and ethnographical study of the locality. The latter will involve interviews with residents who came as refugees and settled in sKolkata. Two research assistants will be employed for this period. The second year will be devoted to the preparation of the manuscript in English and Bengali. Mr Ray has a commitment from Penguin U.K. for the novel in English, while Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, has signed a contract to publish the novel in Bengali.