Monday, 24 October 2011

Land of Two Rivers by Nitish Sengupta – Book Review

Nitish Sengupta studied history at the Presidency College, Kolakata, taught history for a brief while and then, like so many talented Indians of his generation, joined the Indian Administrative Services. After his retirement, Sengupta entered politics and joined the Trinamool Congress, ending up in the 13th Lok Sabha (1999-2004). Currently Sengupta is Chairman of the Board for Reconstruction for Central Public Sector Enterprises in New Delhi. Despite all this, Sengupta never lost his love for history, as evidenced in his most recent book, Land of Two Rivers, a project which took him seventeen years to complete.

A labour of love, Sengupta wrote Land of Two Rivers in the hope that it will encourage ‘those who speak Bengali, about 250 million in number, take an active interest in their common political history, their shared composite culture and above all, the common language they take pride in.’ Note the words ‘common’ and ‘composite’, the former used more than once in the sentence I have just quoted. These words and their synonyms are used repeatedly by Sengupta as he describes the ethnic origins of the Bengalee race and takes his readers from the time human habitation came to the land where the Ganga and the Brahmaputra flow, till the creation of Bangladesh. How did the various ethnic groups in the land of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra fuse together to become Bengalees? How was the Bengali language, the sixth largest in the world in terms of number of people speaking it, formed in the tenth century? Why did the Suhrawardy-Sarat Bose attempt to have an ‘independent, sovereign, undivided Bengal in a divided India’, fail? One detects a tinge of regret as Sengupta describes the second partition of Bengal and chest thumping pride as Sengupta talks of how Bengalis in East Pakistan fought for their language. And won.

Let me repeat this. Sengupta took seventeen years to write this book and every paragraph in Land of Two Rivers reflects the effort that has been put in. There are no dramatisations, other than that which occur on their own, and Sengupta’s descriptions are very much matter of fact, be it his description of how the Chinese Buddhist traveller, Fa-Hien’s writings mention a prosperous Bengal or the description of the events of Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946 and the Calcutta Killings. Sengupta evidently subscribes to the school of historial thought propagated by RC Majumdar and later Romila Thapar. The Aryan migration theory is accepted and is used to partly explain migrations into the areas which is now form West Bengal and Bangladesh as well as caste structures and ethnic mixing amongst Bengali speakers.

Sengupta’s inflection-less writing comes at a price though. There were times when, while going through a description of, say, the Kaibarta rebellion in the 11th century, I had to stop in mid-sentence and figure out who ‘Bhim’ was. Since Land of Two Rivers is a continuous flow of facts and characters at an even pace without flourishes or melodrama, many names and facts merely flowed through my head without lodging. I had to scan through two of the preceding paragraphs twice before I could locate ‘Bhim’, the third of the three Kaibarta chiefs who occupied Varendra or north Bengal.

Sengupta does not hesitate to fight for his (Bengalee) heroes. When discussing Sasanka, the first ruler of the land that later came to be called Bengal, and his alleged anti-Buddhist bias, Sengupta pleads that ‘in fairness to Sasanka, it needs to be emphasized that his so-called anti-Buddhist stance was clearly more political than religious. He had to fight against two Buddhist kings and therefore, some Buddhists in his own dominion had to bear the brunt of his hostility. But he should not be made to suffer in the eyes of posterity for not having had emotionally motivated chroniclers like Banabhatta and Hiuen-Tsang to write in his favour.

Sengupta carries out a similar exercise in the case of Siraj-ud-Daula and the Battle of Plassey, which, Sengupta tells us, was not exactly a whitewash as many historians have made it out to be. Sengupta’s description of the young Siraj-ud-Daula who was so talented and had so many short-comings is one of the best bits of this book. Did the Black Hole of Calcutta actually exist? Do please read this book to find out what Sengupta has to say about it. Equally well written is the chapter on Subhas Chandra Bose. Aptly titled the 'Rise and Fall of Netaji Bose', this brief and succinct chapter told me more about Netaji than any other book I have read. However, Sengupta does not ask or answer one crucial question: Was Subhas Chandra Bose right in having started the INA rebellion? With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that the Japanese and Germans were bound to lose the war, but in the dark days of the German Blitzkrieg, Pearl Harbour and the British retreat from Singapore, who knew which power would prevail? Subhas Bose wanted independence for India at any cost and was willing to ally himself with the devil, for all he cared, as long as he achieved his goal.

One important Bengalee politician whose character I felt could have been analysed in greater detail, is Suhrawardy. A man who played almost as important a role as Jinnah in the creation of Pakistan and the popularisation of the Muslim League among ordinary Muslims, Suhrawardy was almost entirely responsible for the Calcutta killings during Direct Action Day. However, Suhrawardy also took the lead in fighting for Bengalee rights after Partition and joined the Awami Muslim League, later renamed as the Awami League. Sengupta does talk of Suhrawardy in detail, but analysis of his character on the lines of Subhash Chandra Bose or Siraj-ud-Daula is missing.

Unfortunately and sadly, Sengupta’s tome slows down after Bangladeshi independence, through there are brief mentions of developments till the West Bengal elections of 2006 when the CPI(M) was returned to power, despite inroads made by the Trinamool Congress. I do wish Sengupta had discussed and analysed the agitation for Gorkhaland by Nepali speakers in Darjeeling and Doars in the north of West Bengal. The absence of discussion on this topic is all the more glaring because towards the end of the book, Sengupta devotes a page to ‘Bengalees in India outside West Bengal’ and dwells upon the plight of Bengalees in the Barak valley of Assam. In a country where all states have been divided on a linguistic basis and where every linguistic group has a state of its own, should the Bengalees who care so much for their language and who suffered so much at the hands of those who sought to impose another language on them, prevent Nepali speaking Gorkhas from having a state of their own?

I was also hoping that Sengupta would make an attempt to analyse why Indo-Bangladeshi relations are not so warm or friendly as they ought to be, considering India's assistance in the creation of Bangladesh, a topic on which, I am sure Sengupta could have contributed a lot. After the creation of Bangladesh, a large number of Urdu speakers in Bangladesh, many of whom had colluded with the Pakistani army, were disenfranchised. I wish Sengupta had expressed his views on this issue.

Nevertheless, despite the few ‘missing’ issues and events, for all history buffs, friends of Bengal, lovers of Bengali and Bengalees, Land of Two Rivers will undoubtedly make a riveting read.

Note: Sengupta spells the language as ‘Bengali’ and the people of Bengal as ‘Bengalee’.

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