Bhaswati Ghosh talks to Pooja Garg, Founder – The Woman Inc. as her new book, Victory Colony 1950, comes out from Yoda Press. She also shares an excerpt from the book.
The Woman Ink series brings conversations with women authors.
Amala’s thoughts went back to her plan. The fact that it would be after work hours irked her. But if not now, when? She looked out of the window again, taking in the grey day and the strange smells it brought. At work, Amala kept her eyes pinned to the sewing machine, her hand and feet swiftly obeying the commands of her habit-trained mind. She didn’t take the usual ten-minute break for a walk outside with Tara. The work helped calm her anxiety. While cutting a new piece of silk cloth for a young girl’s frock, she felt grateful for her job yet again. Not only did it keep her grounded, it also provided respite from the oppressive heat and invincible mosquito brigade at home.
The day rolled by quickly. As time for returning home drewcloser, Amala realised she hadn’t informed Malati about gettingdelayed. She asked Tara to tell Malati that she had to meet Chitra in the evening and would get late. She had practised the ruse in her head before saying it to Tara so she wouldn’t stammer or get caught.
When Tara simply said, ‘All right’, Amala returned to hermachine, relieved. She wrapped up the day’s work, cleared thesewing area of cloth scraps and shreds of thread. Then, taking her leave of Purnima, she joined Tara and Bakul to walk to the bus stop.
Amala waited for the girls to board their regular bus eventhough that meant missing the one she had to take. She didn’t want them to suspect anything. Luckily, the very next bus that came after Tara and Bakul had left also plied to Amala’s destination.
The jam-packed bus disappointed Amala, but she didn’t want to get more delayed. The humidity, coupled with the absence of her friends, made the ride anything but enjoyable. To find a seat during office-closing time on a busy route was next to impossible. An elderly man offered to vacate the ladies’ seat he was occupying but Amala gestured for him to remain seated. The bus swerved continuously, forcing Amala to tightly clasp the overhead rod.
The half-hour journey felt a lot shorter to Amala as the Sealdah bus stop appeared in view. She got down and leapt forward. The station looked no different from the way it had appeared to her on the previous two occasions. The same mass of people, porters shoving past each other, passengers shouting for and at porters, family members arguing…the same disquieting chaos that had snatched Kartik away from her, the terrible memory of leaving Minoti behind….
Caught in the swirl of people entering the station, Amalaapplied the only strategy she knew—zoom her eyes in on themen, then the boys of Kartik’s age. Everything else blurred out of her vision as she sharpened her focus to spot her brother amid the gigantic puzzle of human heads floating about her.
Amala ambled from one platform to the next and felt the samedizzy suffocation she had experienced the day she had first setfoot on the station. A pang of hunger rose in her throat and sherealised she badly needed a sip of water. The deja vu of lookingfor water made her even more nauseous. She wobbled over to one side where she saw a tap. Amala lowered her face to drink from it and had barely taken a sip when someone tapped her on the shoulder from behind. Startled, Amala looked up. Her feet froze when she turned around. It was the man she had encountered at Santu’s tea stall, the same man she had noticed in and around Bijoy Nagar at least twice since their first meeting.
‘Hello. Are you looking for someone? May I help?’ He asked her while lighting a cigarette.
‘Who? Wha…what is it that you want?’ Amala said, barelysuppressing a scream.
‘Eh, nothing, just want to help you, lady, may I?’ the man said,pushing his arm on the wall next to the tap, cornering Amalawith a menacing laugh. He seemed to have no inhibitions aboutclosing in on her like that in a crowded railway station. Before she could react, his hand had crept up to touch her neck as he let out a coughing sneer.
He has been following me. Terror grabbed Amala’s throat as she bent and ducked his clutches to run, ramming her way through the swell of people. The strap of her right footwear came loose; she paused only for a second to pick it up. She didn’t bother to look behind to see if the man was still following her, nor did she stop to pay attention to the bruise in her bare right foot as it jagged on a shard of glass.
Congratulations on your new book! How would you describe the journey of publishing your book so far?
Thank you so much! The journey of publishing my debut novel, “Victory Colony, 1950” has been a rewarding one so far. The book came out in August 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the affection it has received so far. I must thank Aripita Das and Tanya Singh, my publisher and editor respectively at Yoda Press for their faith in the book and for bringing it out in the world.
As it deals with the subject of India’s partition on the eastern side, following the country’s independence in 1947, this book has a lot of emotional connection with many readers, both from an earlier generation who lived through those times as well as younger readers who are their children or grandchildren. Readers from the West have found the book of interest, too, and could connect with not only its central theme of forced migration and its impact on those caught in the throes of such displacement, but also the resilience and resourcefulness of refugees in the face of government apathy and extreme impoverishment.
How would you describe your book? Why did you choose this theme/ topic?
Victory Colony, 1950 is a book of historical fiction set against the aftermath of the partition of India and the refugee crisis that the state of West Bengal witnessed in the early 1950s. The theme had been a part of my subconscious through much of my growing-up years. This was because of my grandparents, who had lost their home and belongings in Barisal, which went to East Pakistan in 1947. In that sense, I was a third-generation refugee myself, and as I grew up listening to a steady fare of stories my grandmother related on her life in Barisal – about its riverine beauty and village camaraderie, the freshness of its abundant fish, fruits and vegetables, about the strength of grandma’s mother’s personality, about the quirkiness of her siblings, about her soft-spoken, affectionate father, a kobiraj or ayurvedic practitioner – I somehow became a cohabitant of a place and culture I had never seen firsthand, yet knew intimately.
There’s another interesting inheritance I carry from my grandmother – that of being a writer. She wrote in Bengali, and a number of her short stories feature refugees who streamed into West Bengal from East Pakistan. One such story, which resulted in the kind of horrific tragedy that is often associated with Partition, didn’t leave me. I wanted to reimagine the fate the of the young refugee woman at the centre of the story. That’s how Victory Colony, 1950 started.
Which is your favorite quote from the book.
The following lines that show Amala, the female protagonist of the novel feeling emotional upon receiving love from a stranger who had become family in her new world as it makes me pause and marvel at the power of the kindness of strangers:
“Amala’s eyes welled up. Time and her life’s more-coiled-than straight alleys had hardened her. Yet she couldn’t help tearing up every now and then, couldn’t help letting those drops of rain wet the arid patch she thought her heart had become. Everything about what Malati just said to her, from the tone of her voice, her words, down to her gestures, carried for Amala an imprint of her own mother.
Amala was grateful for this residual wetness within her.”
How did you come up with the title for your book?
The title came up while I was brainstorming potential titles for the book with Sumana Roy, a dear writer friend. She had been a big part of my journey towards the book’s writing and publication and shared her thoughts on the titles I came up with. The moment I uttered the words “Victory Colony,” she said that should be it, and added “1950” to it for more context. The words Victory Colony are a direct translation of Bijoy Nagar, the neighbourhood a group of refugees set up.
What do you think happened to the characters after the book ended?
This is a question I’ve occasionally pondered on and haven’t found any easy answers to. The rebuilding of refugee lives was a long-drawn and challenging journey, so it’s highly likely that the characters would have continued on their struggle to survive in a metropolitan capital city like Calcutta, while also grappling with its changing political and social climate.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’m not sure this happened at a particular moment in time or that I even wanted to be a writer. But I do remember that when I was in grade six, we had a wonderful English teacher, and I really began enjoying answering the “Write an essay on…” question during examinations. That was the first time I had a sense of creative fancy and began stretching my limits beyond the textbook and the syllabus.
What did you learn when writing the book? What surprised you the most?
Writing the book taught me many things, but I would count patience and perseverance to be the biggest lessons. It’s a painstakingly slow process to write a novel, and there were many times during the process when you question the point of it all. To fight against that, you learn to persevere and finish writing what you started. These two attributes also help when it comes to the actual publishing journey – as you walk through the forest of rejections, you learn to fine tune your manuscript and keep walking, until you come across a publisher who shows faith in your work.
What surprised me the most was how much you can accomplish with even the smallest of daily writing goals.
What is your writing process/schedule like?
I wish I had a regular schedule like many writers are known to maintain. But a day job, coupled with my lack of discipline means that I write at random intervals, which could mean anything from a few hours to a few days. The exception to this is when I am working on a book-length project. Then I try to write every day, even if for a few minutes.
This April (2021), I joined a group of poets to participate in the National Poetry Writing Month and have so far been successful in writing a poem daily. This has been a refreshingly good exercise for me as it allows for me to flex my creative muscles and a brief spell of quiet contemplation.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? Like, a favorite place or time, for example.
I seem to work better later in the day or in the quietude of night. I suppose, it makes the reflective space within me grow and find clearer expression in words. I do a lot of quick writing sitting on the couch, but for longer pieces that need more focus and time, I retreat to my home office. The one thing I absolutely always need while writing is Indian classical instrumental music. The sarod is my favourite instrument, followed closely by the sitar, and if you were to walk into my writing space, you’d very likely hear the strains of some raga or the other. I’ve found this music to be the strongest ally in my writing – one that brings out the creative juices rather than interfering with it.
What do you think makes a good story?
As an apprentice who is learning to write “on the job” as it were, I find there are no set answers to this question. While entertainment is often a big part of what appeals to readers, to me a good story is also about empathy at some level, where the author’s felt pathos is experienced by the reader in a way that makes them invest in the characters and their lives.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Watching travel and food shows, reading, singing and spending time in the backyard when the weather allows.
Who are your favorite authors? What are you reading right now?
Authors I’ve enjoyed reading and tried to learn from include Pearl S. Buck, Alice Munro, Anuradha Roy, Rohinton Mistry and Amitav Ghosh (particularly for his non-fiction works).
These days I am reading Moustache by S. Hareesh in the translation of Jayasree Kalathil.
If there was a book or poem or essay you would universally recommend, which one would that be?
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Do you think writing and publishing gets easier with each book published?
I have only two published books to my name – My Days with Ramkinkar Baij, which I translated from Bengali into English and Victory Colony, 1950, my debut novel – and these were published after a gap of nine years. So, I might not be the best person to answer this. Publishing is a market-driven industry and there are a lot of variables at play, so every book has to chart its own peculiar course depending on all those factors.
What is your advice for other writers? Are there certain takeaways as a woman writer of color?
The biggest advice, as a fellow traveler on the path, would be to keep walking, or writing, to explain the metaphor. I’ve already spoken about patience and perseverance, but it’s also important to pay attention to your growth arc as a writer. This is best done by reading widely – most importantly, by reading materials other than the type of thing you’re writing. I remember my grandmother, who was an excellent writer herself, would read everything from paper bags made out of old newspapers to the latest poetry book making waves in international circles to folk tales, philosophy, religion and everything else in between. This widens your perspective and makes you appreciative of eclectic frames of reference. I also strongly recommend reading the works of one’s writer friends. Writing is a tremendously isolating creative field, and the more we read and support each other, the better for us to help close that gap.
I don’t attach any special significance to being a woman writer of colour other than being mindful of the stories of such women and the desire to bring them to the world. Representation is best when it happens via the lived experience of the one being represented, whether it’s a character, a setting or even an emotional journey.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first book of fiction is ‘Victory Colony, 1950’. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English, ‘My Days with Ramkinkar Baij’ won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation. Bhaswati’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, including Scroll, The Wire, Cargo Literary, Cafe Dissensus Everyday, Pithead Chapel, Warscapes, and The Maynard. Bhaswati lives in Ontario, Canada. Visit her at https://bhaswatighosh.com/