‘Independence’– Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s multi-layered drama of history & stories
Growing up in a Bengali household with an extended family of second/third cousins and aunts and uncles, references about whom would often pepper conversations between my mother and grandmother on languid summer afternoons, the partition of India, especially Bengal, was a familiar ‘narrated’ landscape for me. Stories of arriving into a large unwieldy North Kolkata home from her beloved Barisal or about the bedraggled relatives from Khulna, who came starving & terrorised, fell off my grandmother’s tongue with the charisma and candour of a born storyteller who had seen the tide and travails of history and survived. So, when I heard about ‘Independence’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, another inveterate storyteller, and read about the expanse of Bengal’s troubled past it covered, I knew I had to read it.
Amitav Ghosh has called ‘Independence’, "A spellbinding saga of the decolonisation and partition of the Indian subcontinent, with a cast of vividly drawn, compelling characters." And indeed it is - vivid, almost cinematic in its depiction of the drama, both individual and historical, of the years that witnessed some of the worst bloodshed in human history as India got sectioned off by the British on the basis of religion - told in prose that is flowing, simple, and engaging.
The three sisters, Deepa, Jamini and Priya, who are centre stage in this novel that traces the trajectory of Bengal’s (and later East Pakistan’s) strife-torn years between 1946 to 1954, go through unique experiences that are distinct, different and turbulent on their own and yet connected to each other viscerally, not just by ties of blood, but by the heaving, gigantic and unimaginable reality that sweeps across the protagonists’ lives in the wake of the Partition that came at the cost of India’s Independence.
To me personally, a novel about Bengal’s partition was much needed - I have always felt that there isn’t enough depiction in fiction or cinema about Bengal as there is on the trauma in Punjab. ‘Independence’ is a multi-layered narrative, taking readers on a fraught fast-paced journey - from the sleepy villages of pre-Partition Bengal and the serpentine lanes of Kolkata’s New Market where hand-embroidered kanthas are haggled upon, to the riot-torn landscape of Kolkata during Direct Action Day, the decimation of lives across Bengal as the bloodied events of 1947 unfold, the uneasy calm of Dacca in newly created East Pakistan, crowded military camps in the India-East Pakistan border towns, wintry academic semesters in a North American women’s medical college, a dramatic chase and rescue across a gushing river, and finally a tantalising denouement with a glimpse of the inimitable Sarojini Naidu!
Chitra’s hallmark lies in the delving into the theatre of our everyday emotions. This tale of three sisters too, playing out against the heart-wrenching communal violence that formed the grisly canvas of India’s Independence from British rule and Partition, is held together by a skein that spans a grand love story, repressed jealousy, bitter envy, betrayal, grief, every woman’s fight for identity and finally the balm of forgiveness.
I heard Chitra speak lovingly of her characters when she addressed the Jaipur Lit Fest earlier this year - she brought to them nuance & a certain vigour which were compelling to listen to. I know she will hold the same magnetic & yet approachable charm at JLF Houston to be held from 15-17 September, 2023. Do attend if you haven’t registered already. Book your spot on https://jlflitfest.org/houston/registrations