Casualties of War As Collateral Damage

The session "Casualties as Collateral Damage" as part of AKLF 2016  (L-R) Salil Tripathi, Kavita Punjabi, Nayanika Mookherjee, Ruchir Joshi. P.C Sourodip Ghosh

The session “Casualties as Collateral Damage” as part of AKLF 2016
(L-R) Salil Tripathi, Kavita Punjabi, Nayanika Mookherjee, Ruchir Joshi.
P.C Sourodip Ghosh

Any and every year, January means fests and being a voracious reader, the fests I’m primarily concerned and excited about are the literary fests. So when the opportunity came to work for the social media team of the Social Bong and Streets of Calcutta in association with the prestigious Apeejay Kolkata Literary Fest 2016, it was just the icing on the cake. Out of all the events that I covered, the session which moved me, more so academically, was the session entitled “Casualties as Collateral Damage” (with emphasis on the Bangladeshi Independence War of 1971). Moderated by Kavita Punjabi, the panel included authors Salil Tripathi, Nayanika Mookherjee and Ruchir Joshi, at the backdrop of the impressive Western Quadrangle of the Victoria Memorial.

While Ruchir Joshi opened the session in a light tone, being in his funny witty persona, it was the statement by Nayanika Mookherjee, which according to me, really set the mood for the wintery afternoon. “Itihaash kagojer paataye, khataye noye.” (History can be found in its pages and not in its books) Such a statement!

Salil Tripathi was of the view that earlier, wars were more like Test matches than T20 matches. According to him, India has been incredibly welcome to the refugees. According to the statistics quoted by him, 10 million of ‘em had come and 95% had went back, after a few months/years. None anywhere in the history of UNO can it be found that a poor country, in this case India, has borne so many refugees, yet they went back, after reaping the shelter of the same.

They spoke about 3 kinds of silences of war: A. People who knew what was going on but couldn’t care less. B. The Media, who had been silenced and blacked out. C. People like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the famous poet, who had actually taken efforts, for instance, signature campaigns but by virtue of curtailing of freedoms on part of the state, had been silenced and thus had to come back.

In fact, in order to vent his despair of the failure of his efforts, Faiz had went on to write a poem entitled, “Dhaka Se Waapsi Ke Baad” (After the Return from Dhaka), where he talks about his efforts and struggles, best captured by the verse,

“Ankahi keh gayi who baat, jo kehne gaye thhey Faiz.”

(The words remained unspoken, which Faiz had went to say.)

Talking about the unspeakables of war, Nayanika divulged that while the husbands of the women victims coaxed ’em on, the women themselves refused to get grilled. It was indeed the men who were more enthusiastic in letting the real stories be known, telling the researchers that the history lay with them, the “Talkable Itihaash” (The Talkable History).

She also talked about several incidents on the fragments of narratives that could be found. Two stories particularly hooked me on and needless to say, raised goosebumps. In the first story, a woman, on watching the oncoming of Kaalbaishakhi (The Norwester Storm), had mysteriously whispered, looking at the storm brewing, “Shedin erom chhilo” (That day was like this day). An eerie silence had followed, as the woman could later nowhere be found, having disappeared without a trace.

It was however the second story which absolutely moved the audience and loud gasps had filled the air. In this story, a young lady in a bid to protect her family members & the other girls of her village, kept forwarding herself to the army every night, without showing any kind of emotion. While her family kept crying, fully aware of what was happening to her but the lady herself remained stoic. Instead, on being asked how she had felt, the lady refused to tell her tale and rather said, “I’ll keep my silence.” But she did give away one statement, which was, “They (the army) took what they could take from me but they couldn’t get anything from Me.” And this happened to be one of many hundred similar stories.

While the session was drawing to an end, Salil Tripathi talked about the obstacles he faced, during the research, saying he was constantly reminded of his foreign-ness, to not being able to feel any kind of real empathy, for of course, he couldn’t, just couldn’t. He also said, while dealing with sensitive stories like this, it is important for the researcher to keep in mind that in no way should they do an intensive, entirely target-oriented grill, so much so they go on to recreate the terrible past in the minds of the victims. He also revealed a particular insight, saying to fill certain specified quotas, armies sometimes have to open fire, no matter the existence of any actual need to do so!

Nayanika Mookherjee said, what she discovered was this dark humor among the women. In fact, she was quite taken aback how ‘banterific’ these women victims can be regarding the after-effects of the 1960s-70s wars. They totally demasculated the men, when it came to talking and dealing with them, during and after the wars. She also said that, perhaps this dark humor actually served as a source of bonding, as a mode of acknowledgment of their painful struggle, without falling back into any kind of depression.

This thought-provoking session couldn’t have ended better, without the words of Salil Tripathi, who remarked, “Forgiveness is not possible, unless and without a tinge of remorse.” I say, forgiveness should never be done, cannot be done, to this phase of the history.




The Friday night, 15th Jan, Tollygunge Club. The stage was set and almost all the dignitaries for the evening had already made themselves comfortable. A few minutes after the clock struck 7, a sophisticated lady went up on the stage, to welcome the guests, sipping on red wine. Just when she gave up on the social niceties, seemingly drowsy from the wine running in her nerves, suddenly after barely having raised the guests a toast, she choked, to everyone’s horror. Aye, she choked, clutched her throat and staggered right in the middle of the stage! Some dignitaries panicked, some rushed ahead to inspect the collapsed lady and then! A gentleman made an entry, butler-style and announced, oh-so-calmly, that it seems the lady has been poisoned. But fortunately, the antidote to that poison and many similar poisons can now be found in a novel (to be revealed later in the evening) and thus the life of the lady had been saved! While people were caught in a perilous dilemma of whether to exhale in relief or roll back in laughter or just be simply embarrassed by their panicked reactions, the lady in question, with a little help, from the gentleman-cum-butler, strode down from the stage, nodding her head disbelievingly. A loud round of applause and there went the start of the session, entitled “Bloody Scotland and Dame Agatha” held by Apeejay Kolkata Literary Fest 2016, in true Agatha Christie flair, to pay homage to the 125 years of the Grand Old Dame.  If the start was anything to go by, the release of Kathryn Harkup’s novel “A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie”, with attendance by the lady herself, Dom Hastings, the director of the Bloody Scotland Crime Writers Festival Stirling (to be held from 9-11th September, 2016) and Miss Anuja Chauhan, the lady behind all the great commercials, especially ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’ of Pepsi and a great novelist as well, with the likes of The Zoya Factor, Those Pricey Thakur Girls and such to glow in pride, made the evening all the more better!

The Session "Bloody Scotland and Dame Agatha"  (From L-R) Dom Hastings, Kathryn Harkup, Anuja Chauhan and Sumit Ray. Picture Courtesy: Sourodip Ghosh

The Session “Bloody Scotland and Dame Agatha”
(From L-R) Dom Hastings, Kathryn Harkup, Anuja Chauhan and Sumit Ray.
Picture Courtesy: Sourodip Ghosh

Moderated by Sumit Ray, the session opened with Kathryn lauding Agatha Christie’s amazing quality of brilliantly putting scientific elements in the book. The desire to prove justice to her scientific-ness, creativeness and intelligence, was at the back of Kathryn’s mind while writing the novel on Agatha Christie, whom she quoted saying, being the greatest novelist of all time, only to be outbid by Shakespeare and the Bible. On being asked to describe Agatha Christie, Kathryn called her an entertainer. Not only she solves brilliant puzzles, she proves forward little intellectual challenges. Dom expressed his choice of Christie for the timeless classic element of & in her stories, no matter whether you have heard it or read it. Anuja exclaimed saying, Christie gets everything so bang on, even the science as well! Christie could be given any genres and she’d make it ring so very true!

Dom Hastings during the session. Picture Courtesy: Sourodip Ghosh

Dom Hastings during the session.
Picture Courtesy: Sourodip Ghosh

In response to the question that why crime writing as a genre is still popular and what is that still intrigues people, Dom, the director of a crime-writing festival himself, simply put it down saying, “we live in a world of crimes.” Kathryn took it up a step further, saying, it is apparently easy, in fact, frighteningly easy to kill a person. What led a person to commit such a thing is something to figure out. The human psyche and the compulsive nature of it is what is intriguing. Anuja described a whodunit as ‘who does it’ and it is precisely the “propulsive thrust” of any genre, that leads us to reading the same. In fact, it is the ‘little abode’, that is a lovely satisfaction to receive, at the end of a whodunit.

Kathryn Harkup during the session. Picture Courtesy: Arpita Pramanick

Kathryn Harkup during the session.
Picture Courtesy: Arpita Pramanick

On her justification of using poisons and their applications as the theme of her novel, Kathryn said, her role as a chemist (Yes, she is one!) could make her understand what a poison could do to a person, which was scientifically intriguing and besides, just for the sheer entertainment of it. As of getting all the alphabets of all the poisons (Christie had used 30 different compounds as poisons in her novels!) and whether she intended to take the alphabet series forward, Kathryn was quoted saying, it was a challenge, that unfortunately she is done away with, at the moment. It is otherwise just so exotic. On her interest behind the usage of poisons in her novel, she goes to give the definition of poison as a compound that changes everything in a body. Likewise, she calls everything a poison and thus her interest behind using ‘em. (She even says, too much of a water is a poison as well. Oh my!)

Anuja Chauhan in one of her light moments during the session. Picture Courtesy: Arpita Pramanick

Anuja Chauhan in one of her light moments during the session.
Picture Courtesy: Arpita Pramanick

Anuja, on being asked of the lack of visibility of Indian authors in the crime-writing genre, responded saying that Christie’s books are just so available and the bar is just so high (echoing Kathryn’s similar views), that maybe the Indian authors are afraid to tread in on that genre. In fact, Christie herself was an inspiration behind Anuja’s writing of novels and her construction of strong women characters. She wanted to have the power, the control to do anything with the lives of the protagonists. Her choice behind romance as a genre was the propulsive thrust of it, for she loved writing romance and reading ‘em as well, if the book was good enough. Her most interesting response came in the form of how much of her characters are from real life, quoting it as 60%, attributing ‘em as mostly being a result of shameless eavesdropping or just eager personal observations. Most of her characters are from real life, as she finds reality much more strange than the reality itself.

According to Kathryn, the most intriguing poison is Valium, that has such ghastly effects, it is very rarely used, and yet Christie uses it so well. In fact, given that in today’s times, there are antidotes to poisons available, but they are antidote in the sense that they can only correct the symptoms, and not really heal the person himself. In fact, she expresses her awe at Christie’s ability to talk and use those poisons in her books ably, almost 50 years before their application became widely talked-about.

The session, as it draws to an end. Picture Courtesy: Arpita Pramanick

The session, as it draws to an end.
Picture Courtesy: Arpita Pramanick

On their choice as their most favorite Agatha Christie novel, Dom chooses the novel Murder on the Orient Express as a classic novel. While both Anuja and Kathryn concur on Five Little Pigs as their favourite novel, but on being asked to choose her most favourite, she chose the novel And Then There Were None as her favourite. And last but not the least, with Black Coffee being moderator Sumit Ray’s favourite, let’s just raise a toast to the Grand Old Dame with our own dose of caffeine! Un-poisoned one, of course. *wink wink*

(Thanks to the Social Bong and Streets of Calcutta for making me a part of their social media admin. You guys are just great!)