Colony Fiction: Refugee Colonies and their Representation in Post-Partition Kolkata

Abstract: My presentation is titled ‘Colony Fiction: Refugee colonies and their Representation in post Partition Kolkata.’ It is an essay that tries to look at the refugee colony as a space in texts like Meghey Dhaka Tara and Bwadwip both novels that deal with the aftermaths of Partition. It also looks at memoirs and other nonfictional works that talk of colonies, their beginnings and their expansion. I also look at Bangla poetry of the post partition years to see how a new urban poetry is being written about an ever present reality of the city of Kolkata.

Bio: Debjani Sengupta teaches at the Department of English, Indraprastha College, Delhi. She is the editor of Mapmaking: Partition Stories from Two Bengals, Shrishti Publishers, 2003. At present she is editing, with Selina Hossain of Bangladesh, a collection of South Asian feminist fiction. This monsoon, she has registered to begin her doctoral work on the Bengal Partition at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.

email: debjanisgupta @ yahoo .com

Debseng’s Journal

Hello everyone. This is my first posting and I must introduce myself (although virtually). It feels a little unreal that I shall be writing and reading a lot of people whom I shall meet many months later, and by then I would know a lot about some of you as some of you would know me.

I am Debjani and I suspect I am the oldest among the I-fellows this year. I teach literatures in English at Indraprastha College in Delhi and read in my spare time. Sometimes I translate short stories from Bangla to English as I love to work with words.

My research proposal is called Colony Fiction: Refugee Colonies and their Representation in Post Partition Calcutta. I will be looking at the history of migration and refugee settlement in Calcutta, but through the lens of literature. My training has been about reading texts and I will look at short stories,essays, plays and films, roughly between the years1948 to 68 and see how the refugee colony figures in them.

A city thrives and grows if there is a rhythmic flow of people from outside. Calcutta is no exception. By 1951, the city recorded an enormous influx of people from East Bengal, now Bangladesh, a migration so large that the ‘displaced persons’ made up nearly 18 percent of the city’s population.

The refugees establish colonies in and around the Calcutta Metropolitan area. Named after famous Benglais like Netaji and Rabindranath, these spaces play out the silent drama of identity, survival, exile amd rootlessness.

From these spaces emerge some familiar stereotypes of Bengali Popular Fiction. The lumpen political cadre, the fallen woman, the desperate clerk walking the dusty pavements have their genesis in the colonies. The city viewed them with suspicion and wariness. The refugee was different from the original inhabitants.

Speaking their peculiar tongue, their weary eyes, their marginality and their lonely optimism made them stand out amongst the citizens of Calcutta.

To look at Colony Fictions is to see the ways in which the city responded to this enormous humanitarian and political crisis. The refugee colonies generated their own discourse of anxiety and accomodation and created their own spaces of political and economic thoughts that were in turn reflected in the way Calcutta thought about itself.

I wish to look at texts, talk to writers and colony residents, look at corporation and municipal archives to see the extent colonies shaped and reshaped themselves as did their inhabitants. By August, I hope to hand over all this material. I think I would also have a full length paper on what conclusions I have drawn.

I would be pleased if some of you asked questions on what I have written. It is always fruitful to know how one’s hobby-horses appear to others. Bye and goodnight.


Have been reading some of the postings of Sarai fellows and enjoying them. I was a little worried about what to write in my second posting but then I thought I should write about all that I have been doing in the past month connected with my project.

On 14th February, Valentine’s Day, I attended a seminar here in Delhi, a national consultation towards building an archive on the Partition of India. Organised by the Centre of Refugee Studies, Jadavpur University and Maulana Abul Klam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata, the consultation brought together scholars, academics, publishers, researchers to discuss the modalities of going about this mammoth project. This archive will be different from the National and other Sate archives already extant. This will be a civil society archive focused on the ordinary people’s experience of the Partition.

What was even more interesting was to hear that this archive will focus on diaries, reminiscences, photographs and documentary films. They will also look at fictional literature, ‘history’s creative counterpart’ to get an insight into the trauma of displaced people.

The seminar was a confirmation in a way of what I have planned on doing in my project and a validation of my sense of urgency to bring together evidences from unusual sources about a particular historical event.

It was good to see national level institutions now coming together to put together an archive about the Partition. I have thought about and believed all along that such an effort was not only possible but urgently necessary.

It is not a coincidence that Jadavpur University is taking a lead in this project. The vast hinterland of Jadavpur is the home of hundreds of colonies in Bijoygarh, Bagha Jatin, Rani kuthi, Netaji Nagar. Many of the inhabitants of these colonies are now in their eighties and nineties. There is very little time left before their memories and experiences are recorded and preserved or they may be lost fore ever.

On this issue of the Biblio, a journal that reviews new books, I have written about Gargi Chakravartty’s ‘Coming Out Of Partition: Refugee Women Of Bengal.’ Gargi is the daughter of Savitri Roy, one of Bangla’s truly political novelists whose ‘Swaralipi’ and ‘Bwadwip’ are novels based on the experiences of migration and displacement resulting from the Partition. Roy used to live in Vivek Nagar, a colony in Kasba where she came in close contact with refugees. Working among the women there have influenced her life and work. Gargi’s book is another exploration of the same theme. The disintegration of the joint families forced the refugee women to come out of the andarmahal and join forces with other women in the street, Their activism gave the Women’s movement in Bengal a peculiar sharpness and focus. The trajectories of the lives of the refugee women is of course another history, another story. In another land. Besides, the wenches are dead!


Dear All, here is my third posting. Sorry for being very late. The city of Calcutta had attracted millions of refugees before 1950 and a large number of colonies emerged within the Calcutta Corporation area itself. The refugees were interested in building their huts of ‘darma and bamboo in the low lying and marshy areas near Calcutta and many of them, belonging to middle-classes, wanted to be near the metropolis for occupational interests. Till May, 1955, there were about 25 lakh regugees in Calcutta which rose to about 27 lakhs by 1955. One of the areas of concentration of the refugee colonies was the south east portion of the CMD in the Tollygunj, Jadavpur, Kasba, Santoshpur Garfa areas. In this area, about 40 pre 1950 Squatter’s colonies were located. By 1959, many of these colonies had been regularised and 268 of them were within the Calcutta Metropolitan District. Besides the government sponsored and squatter’s colonies there is another group of colonies known as private colonies which grew haphazardly where ever the displaced poeple could get together and purchase a bit of land. This sharp growth of settlements in the Calcutta Metropolis is certainly due to the influx of refugees. Apart from the demographic and cartographic changes, this entailed other far reaching changes in the whole economic and social foundation of West Bengal. Although the successive West Bengal governments tried to absorb the bulk of refugees within the economic set up of the state, it was a daunting task. The traditional livlihoods of the displaced people could not be reatined and many agricultural families had to take up other kinds of occupations because of the non availability of land. The displaced population had a different language, different culture, different food. Although they spoke Bengali, their dialect soon came to be known by a term ‘Bangal’ that had often derogatory implications. The colonies tried to replicate, in a minuscule way, the plants and trees of the land the refugees had left behind and many houses were built around a large pond that satisfied the water loving Easterners*. The refugge colonies were solitary havens in the midst of the din of Calcutta, a city that had now assumed terrifying anonymity to many who had earlier been aquainted with it. Calcutta had always attracted a fair number of men from Esat Bengal who came to study and work in the city. Living in messes, this population would return to their village homes in East Bengal during holidays and be a part of the festivities at home. Their connection to Calcutta were firm but not of the heart. That remained back home. Coming to the city as refugees changed in very subtle ways their connection to the place. The fight for dole, for a job, for a place to live, organising themselves to build their colonies created a different impact on the city. The political atmosphere in West Bengal changed to a large extent when the refugees organised themselves and demanded proper rehabilitation. Their daily fights for survival spawned a large amount of literature that is of special interest. So also the social impact of the shortening of distance between the two Bengals.The impact of the ‘Bangal’ culture, custom and social behaviour on the city of Calcutta is of great significance.



Some translations of poems on the city by me; hope you
enjoy them. Debjani

Roadside shelter

On Kolkata’s breast
Wide as wings
Tin sheds and Iron railings
The bus-stand shelter
Jute bags flapping
Night shelter
In the december cold
Has moved
To another road another pavement address.
Debobrata Bhattacharya, ‘Ghumparani Golpo ebong’

You came to the City

….leaving aside homes, hearths, the path between
fields, the river’s pull, trudging mile after mile,
you came to the city. Ballygunj to Sealdah, Sealdah to
Khidirpur, Khidirpur to Howrah you keep walking.
Beneath your cracked soles boiling tar. Over your
head, a sky dripping fire…
Ranajit Sinha, ‘Shohore Gramer Chashi”

The Refugee March

Through tram windows office babus look
In the crowded maidan a meeting;
>From second floors, women watch, plaits in hand
Refugee mothers seething, milling….
Manindra Roy, ‘Ekhoni Ekhane’


Refugee City: Ghoti, Bangal, Football and Other
Divides of the Self.

The city of Kolkata still has an invisible divide that goes deep into the psyche of the city today – it is the ghoti-bangal divide, between the East Bengalis and West Bengalis. In undivided Bengal, before Partition, the city of Kolkata had offered education and jobs for
the middle classes from East Bengal. Hindu College, Ripon College, Presidency, Scottish Church College were filled with students from the East while the merchant and trading houses, the government departments had many workers who hailed from East Bengal. Every year they traveled back home, crossing the Padma, waking up the sleepy villages with tales of the multihued city. In return they carried back to the city their language, the nostalgia for their land, the smell of their rivers Buriganga, Dhaleshwari, Padma, Meghna, the tug and pull of memories. Living in cramped mess ‘bari’, or rented rooms, they dreamt of making it in the city. (Satinather Bari Phera) Even though they lived and worked in Kolkata, it was never home; in their minds there always existed a division of culture, of landscapes, of food and flora and fauna. Calcutta, claustrophobic in its interiors, the
mess room, the restaurants, the cinema halls were places of isolation. Posited against this was the community left behind, the village puja mandap, the laughter and the togetherness of family and friends.

This juxtaposition of landscape and realities is seen brilliantly in a story by Prafulla Ray, ‘Swapner Train.’ (The Train of his Dreams):

Twelve or fourteen years ago Ashok used to have a
dream very often, early at dawn. It was a strange
dream – he was sitting on a train. On both sides of
the tracks were immense rice and wheat fields
interspersed with shrubs of bet, shonal and jungles of
pithkhira, hijal, bounya. As far as the eye went, the
land was bathed in golden light. And drenched in that
golden light, hundreds of birds flew about in the sky.
So many kinds of birds – shalikh, sidhiguru, bulbul,
kanibok, haldibona, patibok, wild parrots. They looked
as if someone has strewn thousands of colored paper in
the sky. Overhead, the clouds floated like cotton wool
and from within their folds peeped the bright blue

Ashok used to wake up suddenly. In his sleepy state,
he often forgot where he was. A little later when the
dream train and steamer faded from his consciousness,
he would see he was sitting on a three-legged bed,
overspread with ragged, oily bedding, in a run down
room at the end of a suffocating lane in North
Kolkata. The room had no plastered wall, no whitewash
and cobwebs hung from the corners. On one side was
the bed, on the other a clothes-horse, next to which
were piled trunks, broken suitcases, tin boxes. Under
the bed was another pile of pots and pans, cane boxes
and broken water jugs.

The city room in its claustrophobic interiority and the wide, open space of Ashok’s dream landscape is a contrast between what was real and what was distant. The dream landscape was characterized by a kind of munificience – the birds, shrubs, trees were all unique in their own ways. The evocation of landscape, the flora and fauna of East Bengal is also seen in Jibanananda Das’s ‘Rupashi Bangla’ (1956) collection of poems, whose minutely observed, lovingly sketched portraits of Bengal’s trees, dawns, dusks made this
one of Das’s most popular works till date.

After the Partition, when it was increasingly clear to the East Bengali that they would never return, that distant dream fuelled the passion and the strength to negotiate the city, to make it home and to re-create in imaginative ways the forgotten villages.

The reason why East Bengalis felt alien in the city was certainly contributed by the ghoti-bangal divide that existed as an invisible but strong line of separation in Calcutta. Dipesh Chakraborty writes of his adolescence in Kolkata: ‘We had not heard about academic critiques of essentialism in those days, so bangals and ghotis proceeded to elaborate and ritualize their differences with the enthusiasm of peoples whom anthropologists sometimes call warring tribes. We both spoke Bengali, but with different accents; we loved the Hilsa fish, while they loved prawns; our songs were set to different tunes; our traditions of courtsey were different; and every act of intermarriage was noticed and commented upon.’ The ghotis lived in the older part of Kolkata, the north, while the bangals, especially after the Partition made south Kolkata their home. Although the East Bengal gentlemen had made Kolkata his second home, the ghoti-bangal divide was palpable and quite open. After the Partition with the influx of thousands into the city, this divide became even more prominent.

Historian Tapan Raychaudhuri, in his memoirs ‘Bangalnamah’ now being serialized in a prominent Bengali journal, states how he was ridiculed in Ballygunj Boys School as a bangal from the country who didn’t speak in English. The figure of the bangal had always been a butt of jokes as early as Chaitanyamangal where we find jokes about the inhabitants of East Bengal. In the 50’s and 60’s Kolkata, the rivalry went up the notches of a barometer on the days of soccer matches. East Bengalis supported their club of that name while ghotis supported Mohunbagan. Even if one did not follow football, one knew which team had won by the price rise of particular fishes. East Bengal’s icon was the Hilsa while the Mohunbagan supporters relished prawns. I remember many feasts of Hilsa from my childhood that my East Bengal supporter father initiated on the days of winning matches.

Given this hostility and resentment against the bangals, the question then remains why, when hundreds and thousands of refugees invaded the city of Kolkata, what made the city accept the newcomers? Why was there no incidence of violent flare-ups in the nature of riots between the older inhabitants and the newcomers? In what ways did the city accommodate and accept this influx of population? In what ways did the newcomers negotiate the city that was largely alien?

The answer is probably very simple: through comedy and football.

Dipesh Chakraborty theorizes that the ghoti and bangal rivalry was an example of ‘proximity’, where one relates to difference ‘in which difference is neither reified nor erased but negotiated.’ This notion of proximity is opposite to ‘identity’ which is a mode of relating to difference in which difference is either concealed or congealed and claims of being identical are fore grounded. I see the ghoti-bangal rivalry, especially where football is concerned, as a means in which larger, more public crises were averted and nullified. In the 50’s Kolkata, football had a unique place, which was to a large extent associated with ethnic identity. Manna Dey’s song, ‘Shob khelar sera Bangalir ei football’ talks of the game as belonging to Bengalis but this homogenizing aspect of football was a myth. On the football grounds passions ran high and smaller violences were common. I like to think that by shouting and stone throwing in the Maidan, the bitterness and distrust of bangals and ghotis found a channel to express itself. Like warring tribes they fought their battles in the rituals of the football fields and not in Kolkata’s alleys. The madness and enthusiasm of football is clearly indicated in thefollowing extract from the sports pages of Desh, 21 May, 1955:

‘Every year, in Maidan, the arguments, researches, rumours, excitements and enthusiams eddying around football are countless. The question of whether their favourite team will win is endlessly discussed in the field, outside it and inside homes. Mohunbagan and East Bengal supporters, mostly young colleagues in workplaces, begin with juicy arguments that often end in laughter… actually it is very apparent that in the five months of football season, this game creates a huge tremor in the minds and hearts of Kolkata’s citizens that few other games can create.’

Identity politics is thus never important and the human interactions between the two groups are put to creative use as we can see in the films of that era. The ghoti-bangal divide and its associations with football is captured very evocatively in a film Ora Thakey Odhare (1954, directed by Sukumar Dasgupta) based on a story by Premendra Mitra and featuring Chobi Biswas, Molina Debi, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. The film revolves around two families, one bangal and the other ghoti. They are neighbours and often resort to bickerings and fights, trading insults about each others cultural characteristics. On the day of a football match between Mohunbagan and East Bengal a quarrel erupts as a lady of the house remarks, ‘Why drag a quarrel of the football field into the house?’

Their hostility ensures a budding romance between a grown up son and daughter of the two families are nipped in the bud. The film however has a strong message for the times. In the face of adversity, when the head of the ghoti family Harimohunbabu loses his job, the bangal neighbours come to his rescue. In the last scene, the families are united and they agree that ‘we are two hands, sometimes raised in fists and sometimes brought together in a clap.’ As in the film, the ghoti-bangal resentments were sorted out in the football fields, in cinema halls, in theatre, in other cultural fields. The culture industry after the Partition fed on a rich source of oppositions of the divide and films often had caricatures of the countrified bangal, a butt of well meaning jokes.

Acceptance of the bangals, the refugees, thus came about through the medium of laughter. In hit films of the times like Sarey Chuattar, Bhanu Pelo Lottery and Bhanu Goyenda and Jahar Assisstant, the noted artist Bhanu Bannerjee and Jahar Roy formed a comic pair that were box office hits. Comedy and football were thus able to diffuse the tensions that in reality were often palpably felt in Kolkata. The large number of refugees, the huge number of unemployed, the scarcity of respectable jobs, lack of housing, high rents were adding to the civic crisis of the city. This crisis never reached boiling point, all the newcomers were accommodated and they in turn made a place for themselves. Kolkata became home to these countless millions as the East Bengali middle class began a creative new life in which the interaction between the ghotis and bangals changed the language, food and culture of each side. The assimilation of the bangals into Kolkata’s mainstream is a whole new chapter in the social and cultural life of the city.