'The bedtime stories came to haunt me as an adult'


The bedtime stories came to haunt me as an adult
Deep Halder, author of Blood Island.

Deep Halder, author of Blood Island, on revisiting the Marichjhapi massacre... and what it taught him about resilience


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Fri 14 Jun 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 14 Jun 2019, 5:23 PM

In the late 1970s, a group of Bengali refugees from Bangladesh made Marichjhapi in Sunderbans, West Bengal, their home. Within a short span of time, they were able to build for themselves a self-sustaining habitat with a functional school and a medical centre. However, an economic blockade was imposed soon, followed by a violent campaign to dislodge the refugees from their new home. While the Left-helmed state government in West Bengal cited ecological reasons for the forceful eviction, survivor accounts, as documented in a new book by senior Indian journalist Deep Halder, argues otherwise. Reconstructing what led to the massacre from points of view of different survivors, Blood Island makes a case for a wider and more nuanced understanding of the incident. Edited excerpts from an interview with Halder:
In your formative years, how did you make sense of the Marichjhapi massacre?
Marichjhapi came to me as a bedtime story. One of the survivors - Mana Goldar - came to stay in our house as she and her family were trying to escape from the police. Mana's father, Rangalal Goldar, happened to know my father, who was part of a group of public intellectuals, poets and professors and wanted to help the refugees in Marichjhapi. But I was five or six years old at that time and didn't know any of this. Mana was introduced to me as a cousin and I took her to be one. In her narration, Marichjhapi was a story of great adventure, of fighting odds to turn a strange land into home. It was also the story of killings and rapes, of political betrayal and police brutality. I was too young to process so much cruelty or even understand a lot of what Mana was saying. But these bedtime stories stayed with me long after Mana left us. In my growing up years, the stories came back to haunt me again and again.
The book is a recollection of events from different vantage points. What were the challenges of constructing a cohesive narrative from different perspectives?
The challenge was not just to find the survivors, but to convince them to trust me enough to tell their stories. I had to visit them many times to make them open up about something that destroyed their lives 40 years ago. Some of them turned hostile and asked me to leave or broke down while recounting the horrors of Marichjhapi. Stringing together their disparate tales and turning them into a book was a far easier task.
Most survivors claim that more than the ecological reasons, it was the community's self-sustenance that was seen as a threat by the state. How true is this contention?
This is true. All survivors I spoke to said the former chief minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu and his fellow comrades could not tolerate the fact that a band of hapless men and women could become so self-sufficient and make a home for themselves without any support from the government. The Marichjhapi settlers had dared to dream and the communists in power saw that as an affront. 
The book also talks about media's role in reporting the incident. Most accounts also talk about how the State used its might to prevent any empathetic reporting. What prevented the national press from reporting the event? 
In the course of the book, I talked to two top-line journalists of the time, both of whom were invested in the Marichjhapi story: Niranjan Haldar and Sukharanjan Sengupta. Sengupta did file a few reports for Anandabazar Patrika, Haldar was taken off the Marichjhapi beat after a press gag. After a while, the stories started dying down. So, the local press did try to highlight the sufferings of the Marichjhapi refugees. Strangely, the national media did not highlight the issue, though academic journals on Marichjhapi were written in foreign universities.
In the book, you write about how the children of many refugees today are oblivious of what happened at Marichjhapi. Did you get a sense that this was a deliberate act of omission, to not let the ghosts of Marichjhapi haunt their present?
Yes, most of the refugees I spoke to did not want to remember what happened to them 40 years ago. After the government 'cleansed' Marichjhapi of refugees, the survivors tried to stitch together their broken lives. The last thing they wanted to do was scar their future generations with memories of what happened. Some of them see Marichjhapi as a misadventure, a mistake they should have never committed.
Silence is complicity. Would you say the civil society of Bengal has also been complicit in what happened at Marichjhapi?
They were. Marichjhapi massacre exposes the hypocrisy of Bengal's civil society. A massacre of this magnitude, the biggest perhaps after India became independent, was hushed up by Bengal's culture-keepers. Bengal has always prided itself for having a taste in the arts, upholding human rights and dignity, and not shying away from fighting the good fight for the right cause. Marichjhapi exposes the caste and class hypocrisy prevalent among Bengal's liberal elites. Do not forget that most of these refugees were economically backward and low of caste. Maybe their lives were not significant enough!
Any account that moved you particularly?
Revisiting Mana was the most difficult part. It was long after she left us that I began to understand the full import of the horrors she had witnessed. To go back so many years later and ask her to retell those bedtime stories was difficult. Visiting Marichjhapi was cathartic. There is nothing to see there today except a tiger reserve department office, but it was almost as if I could see Marichjhapi begin and end before me on that island. Stepping foot on that island somehow felt like closure.

Jyotirmoy Mandal, a survivor of Marichjhapi.
Jyotirmoy Mandal, a survivor of Marichjhapi.

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