Marginality, Borders and Existential Refugee-hood in the Chhitmahal | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 24, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:18 AM, February 24, 2018

Selina Hossain's Bhumi O Kusum:

Marginality, Borders and Existential Refugee-hood in the Chhitmahal

At this moment, when thousands of Rohingya refugees are sheltering in Bangladesh, the word 'refugee' gains new significance in the sub-continent. However, this article examines the semantic meaning of the term to encapsulate the affective experiences of some people who cannot be called refugees in the legal sense, and yet whose life experiences closely resemble the lack of status of a refugee's life. I draw attention to enclave dwellers whose existence forms the core of what I wish to say here. But to begin at the beginning we have to turn 70 years back: to the year 1947.

The partition of India in 1947 had the semblance of work well done in terms of population exchange or drawing up the new boundaries, particularly in the Punjab. However, the international boundary in the East, drawn up with indifference to actual lives and geographical realities, was one of the many unfinished labours whose lines of vivisection echoed in the detritus of broken lives, families, habitations and the secret selves of the nations that came into being at the stroke of midnight. After numerous Boundary Commissions and high-level meetings between India and Pakistan, the porous borders between the two nations still contained anomalies and regularly hit the headlines because they extracted a price far beyond the imagination of the policymakers. Significantly, the price was mostly paid by border dwellers, whose ties of trade and kinship often carried them across the invisible lines that demarcated citizenship and defined an alien. I examine a pressing issue of border making through the formation of enclaves in a novel by the well known novelist Selina Hossain called Bhumi O Kusum. In partition studies in South Asia, the terms “refugees” and “migrations” do not encompass some aspects of marginalization that are faced by enclave dwellers. This existential marginalization of a whole people of border dwellers has translated to living on the fringe of society with material deprivations and often, because of nationality and gender, to suffer a double marginalization.

Selina Hossain's novel Bhumi O Kusum (Land and Flower, 2010) remains the only exploration of chhitmahal in Bangla literature from both sides of the border and can be considered an important intervention where literature's role in constructing a society's sense of reality can be seen fully laid out. Depicting Bangladesh's citizens in Dohogram, who live surrounded by Indian territories, the novel explores the lineaments of citizenship that radically transform or mutate the longing for a human subject to live and work peacefully and to belong to a land that may be constructed as home.

Before she began her novel, Hossain had visited the enclave of Dohogram-Angarpota a number of times to get to know about the inhabitants. The idea of the novel came to her when she realized that “those who live here are controlled by international relations….Dohogram-Angarpota belongs to Bangladesh but is surrounded and controlled by India.... This crisis of the human subject moved me immensely” (Interview to me, 2014). She was aware that there was hardly any narrative based on the history of enclaves and her novel would be a pioneering work addressing issues of belonging and violence that were often hidden in governmental statistics. Hossain's novel brings chhitmahal dwellers, and their “divided lives” on a center-stage as it lays bare their relationship to a land where they live and labour.

Peopled with a wide range of characters both Hindus and Muslims, the novel's narrative timeline begins with the formation of the chhitmahal called Dohogram that is surrounded by India (although the land belonged to East Pakistan) and ends with the formation of independent Bangladesh. The Hindu inhabitants of the enclave feel like “proxy citizens” of the new state of Pakistan while in India they would be termed “refugees.” In one life-time, that encompasses a range of marginalities (156). Even the Muslims are not real citizens either because they enjoy nothing of the benefits that citizenship brings. They even own no official documents (like an identity card) that allow them any access to the state's resources. The novel, in keeping with its subject has a fluid structure with episodic units tied together through a number of characters, although Golam Ali, Namita Bagdi, Monjila, her daughter Barnamala and Bashar are the ones who influence the narrative flow.

The interlocutory discursive trope of the text is land and belonging: this in turn constructs the ideal of a 'home' that gathers within it both a goal and a method: the inhabitants of the chhitmahal unite to form a responsible society although they are denied citizen's rights just as they participate in the formation of their collective identity.  The novel celebrates the birth of Bangladesh but also suggests that it can be a nation only when it is truly inclusive: to deny citizenship to the enclave inhabitants is to construct a nation deeply flawed: “We are Pakistani…inhabitants of the chhitmahal called Chandraghana. We are surrounded by India on all sides. Our flags are decorated with the moon and stars. We can see Pakistan when we look at that flag…. But Pakistan is an absence in the vessel in which we cook rice” (251). Bhumi O Kusum is a novel about the novelist's quest to “work through” (to use Adorno's phrase) the subcontinent's past and its connections to the present: not only in the synchronic life of the nation but the diachronic inheritance of identities that live within an organic cycle of nature's seasons and in the shadow of the partition.

Dohogram, situated next to the Teen Bigha Corridor, is a small space packed with people of all faiths and creeds. Hossain's strategy to explore this marginal community in constant dialogue with hegemonic state structures opens up a space that is between the factual and the metaphorical: the imagination of a 'home' is mediated through issues of territory and sovereignty; yet it is also something more than just land. Nitai the singer, who had left his ancestral home in another “chhit,” ruminates: “Now there will be another turn and another new life will start: another kind of soil, another kind of grass, trees and plants. Birds and bird-calls…. To make a path and then to find a path again. And again ….” (273). The passage points to a “third dimension” working within temporal markers of the idea of home: a home that is beyond the factual or metaphorical but consistent with the journey of humans through the earth, at once real and sublime.

Barnamala, whose name means the (Bangla) alphabet, scripts this new language of living and loving. The day she gets married to Ajmal she watches the soft light spread over the chhit under whose benediction the huts, the grass, the wild bushes, the mud track and the rice fields look ever new. Like the changes in Barnamala's life, the political fortunes of the chhit changes too: East Pakistan becomes independent Bangladesh and Ajmal dies fighting for it. The political fate of Dohogram, however, does not change. Barnamala, at the end of the novel, has evolved through living and through suffering the contingencies of borders.  But when she tries to enter Bangladesh to pay obeisance to her dead husband, the sentries stop her. She cries out, “I want the people of the chhit to be free. You cannot keep us prisoners forever.” In her last cry the geo-bio identity of the citizen is effaced and Barnamala, “a citizen with no rights, in permanent deferral' refuses to be the 'living dead.” Her cry tears into the silence that surrounds her: she enters a perennial language of protest with her demand to be free. If we take Agamben's idea that only the bare life is authentically political, then Barnamala's cry to be free is the way in which she writes herself back into the body of the nation. Her cry is shot through with the “uncanny” for it reappears after the nation state has been formed and freedom has been proclaimed. It is a reminder how the postcolonial realities of border conflicts remain the marker of the enclave dwellers' life circumstances. The uneasy confluence of state repression and border porosity that had made Barnamala a 'divided body' now asserts its right to be free, not just from the prison of legality but in the momentum set off by her grieving and dying.


Author's Notes: The author wishes to thank Selina Hossain for her generosity.

One of the Key-note speakers at the Refugee Conference at ULAB, Dr. Debjani Sengupta, Associate Professor of English at Indraprastha College for Women, has shared a shortened version of her speech with The Daily Star readers. This paper has been previously published in a longer format in Looking Back: The Partition of India 70 Years On.

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