I am a famine’s poet…(Sukanta Bhattacharya, “To Rabindranath”)
In the life of a city, sometimes a time comes of such cruelty, depravity and utter loss of humanity that annals of history have very little to say about it probably because there are no human ways to memorialize the dead. Yet speak we must: for it is only in speaking and remembering that the mist between the past and the present can be lifted and we can make an effort to understand how our present self has been shaped, nay misshapen, by a long continual trauma that had shadowed who we are and what we do. In Bengal, historically and socially, hunger is an omnipresent reality. As a child growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s, the prime colonial city that was the first to see the many fruits of foreign domination, I was admonished never, ever, to waste food. I was told to remember the millions who had died in 1943, many of them in the city’s pavements and open spaces, because they did not have a morsel to sustain them. The year 1943 had entered the collective subconscious of generations of Bengalis, including my parents, exiles to Calcutta, whose lives had been shaped and colored by the famine. The city’s stately colonial architecture, its planned and unplanned ubiquitous growth, its teeming population that lived cheek by jowl to palaces and slums, hid a terrible truth. Calcutta’s psyche was fashioned by hunger and deprivation of a scale that modern India has not witnessed hence.
A Man-made Famine: War – Food-shortage – Hoarding
Famines were an integral part of British India especially as large tracts of arable land were taken over for cultivating cash crops that yielded the colonizers enormous profits that in turn supported their imperial policies and war machine. As the World War II unfolded on the Eastern frontier, imported Burmese rice that had sustained the populace in Bengal, virtually stopped. Bengal that was once a key rice-producing region had seen a major decline in rice production in the 1940s and the onset of war aggravated the subsistence crisis in the villages of the province. The famine of 1943 was a direct result of British policies of food control and hoarding and was not caused by any natural disaster. Simply put, the famine was created through an artificial scarcity of food, a result of the wartime inflation that stopped the population from buying food. The resultant crisis, unparalleled in India’s history, was a large-scale pauperization of farmers, small traders, and the complete collapse and decimation of the village economy whose effect was felt directly in Calcutta, the British empire’s ‘second city’, a trauma from which the metropolis has never fully recovered. In the 1940s, Calcutta was at the forefront of British war efforts with its manufacturing and industrial belts. The city was the production hub of rice and jute mills, tobacco, soap, matches, cloth, leather, and general engineering and ammunitions. Railway workshops, iron and steel and chemicals added to the city’s industrial outputs. Based on the river Hoogly, the Calcutta port was an important confluence of imports and exports that sustained the empire. Naturally, the city, that served the vast hinterland economically and in terms of labour, was in crisis as through the 1940s, the food situation became precarious because of the war.
By December, 1941, two years into the hostilities against Japan and its allies, the price of rice had increased by nearly 75 percent. The city faced shortages in many essentials like cooking fuel and cotton, while the war brought forth some colonial measures that added to the hardship of the people. This was the British War Cabinet’s decision in 1942 to prevent existing local resources from falling into Japanese hands in case of a land invasion. This policy, known as the Denial Scheme was to take place on two levels. Surplus rice, an essential food crop, would be confiscated in all coastal districts. This lead to an almost overnight and dangerous breakdown of existing trade patterns leading to scarcity as the food grain found its way to the go-downs of large stockists and black-marketeers who would later sell it for a profit. The second aspect of the denial policy was to destroy serviceable boats in the coastal regions as well as in the inland waterways so that the invading Japanese army could not use them. Bengal’s riverine land and deltaic areas depended on country boats for almost everything. From communication to trade, these boats were lifelines of the people living in remote areas as well as populated villages so the large scale destruction of these boats meant that families and livelihoods were wiped out in one fell swoop. In district after district in rural Bengal, the destitution of people grew by alarming proportions. By 1943, the enormity of what was unfolding in Bengal was starkly apparent. As sick, starving and ragged ‘destitutes’ flooded the city streets, wailing for a cup of rice gruel (phyan) and dying untended in open spaces, the city soon came to resemble a landscape from hell. Within a span of a few months, Calcutta was transformed almost instantaneously from a metropolis of abundance to a metropolis of hunger. What unfolded on the city’s streets in 1943 was an ominous and portentous sign of things to come.
Responses to the Famine
At a conservative estimate, around 3 million people died of hunger or starvation related deaths in 1943 and 1944 as the famine waged on. It left a deep scar on Bengal’s psyche because the long irrevocable trauma of war, famine and communal conflagrations made the 1940s one of the most memorable decades in Bengal’s history. The famine and its subsequent effects are too well known but it is necessary to look at one important myth associated with it. It is often said that millions in Bengal died without a murmur and there were virtually no instance of food riots in the city of Calcutta even when thousands lay dying on its streets. This widespread belief is to a large extent untrue: both the national and international press, the nationalist political parties, and artists responded to the unimaginable horrors of the famine in diverse ways just as ordinary people resisted the ‘denial’ policies of the government. Representations of the famine, both literary and visual were plentiful. In Calcutta, the IPTA or the Indian People’s Theatre Association toured Bengal with their plays to raise money for the famine-stricken while the women’s wing of the undivided Communist Party of India, called Mahila Atmaraksha Samity (MARS), ran community kitchens in the city and outside it. By November 1943, much of Bengal’s countryside with its self sufficient economies lay in ruins as the city tried to cope with hundreds of people who came to the metropolis in search of jobs and food. The colonial rulers, who had staked Bengal in their fight against Japan and had remained impervious to the suffering populace, now set up a Royal Commission to Enquire into the Bengal Famine of 1943 after national and international media outrage. The Commission went into the economic and social context of the famine and its report was a reiteration of how the famine played out and ‘insinuated itself into every aspect of life, determining, more than any other single factor, the political, economic, psychological and social landscape’ of the region. Famine then becomes the ‘primary hermeneutic’ through which we can look at the artistic responses of the time.
Representations of the Famine in Poetry and Visual art
Some of the visual artists whose art was shaped by the 1943 famine were Shomnath Hore, Zainul Abedin and Chittoprasad Bhattacharya. Chittoprasad (1915-78) was a regular contributor to the Communist weekly Janayuddho, and he undertook a tour of Midnapore in November 1943, a district that was badly hit by the food crisis and a terrifying cyclone in October 1942. His stark pen and ink sketches of famine stricken people crowding the streets of Calcutta and in deserted villages in Midnapore were brought together in a book called Hungry Bengal that was quickly banned by the British Government and more than 5000 copies were confiscated and burnt. The book and its sketches became iconic of the times and it has now been republished in 2011.
Similarly, Zainul Abedin (1914-76), who was a student in Calcutta Government Art School, lived in Calcutta during the famine and had left a number of stark pen and ink drawings of the times. Abedin, who later left for East Pakistan in 1947, was singlehandedly responsible for reviving the folk arts and crafts of Bangladesh when it became a nation in 1971.
Responses to the famine resulted in the rise of a group of poets who came to dominate Bengal’s literary scene after the death of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1941. In the post Tagore age, these young poets were affected deeply by the traumatic political and economic chaos of Bengal: many lived in Calcutta and their poetry strikes a distinct and different note from those composed by Tagore. Many of them, influenced by Communist ideology, preferred a more colloquial use of language in their poetry as they honed their art with total disregard to the niceties and hypocrisies of middle class bhadralok aspirations.
Poets like Sukanta Bhattacharya, Jibanananda Das, Premendra Mitra, Buddhadev Bose, Arun Mitra, Samar Sen, Biren Chattopadhyay, Manindro Roy, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Golam Kuddus, Fahrrukh Ahmed and Dinesh Das tried to wrest Bengali poetry from the romantic mellifluous Tagorean verses with a new incisive imagery of the urban landscape and its destitutions. Their art responded to the suffering that they witnessed on the city streets, the cries of the multitude as they begged for phyan or lay dead while their hunger ravaged bodies were eaten by crows and vultures. The city, besieged by poverty and torn apart by war, had become a center of depravity, sickness and moral vacuum. The poetry of these young bards, who had grown up under the influence of Tagorean aesthetics, made sure that the new times demanded from them a new realism that would encapsulate the astounding violence that the city and the province were reeling under. The city was a site of continual trauma and degradation of the human subject that demanded a kind of poetry where ‘Our history will be shaped by/ Hungry stomachs.’
Raise your fist of bone.
See, how the fire of scorching doubt
Razes the forest.
There are no songs of falling leaves
By the way side (Arun Mitra, “This Time”)
Or declare like Subhash Mukhopadhyay: ‘Today is not the day to play with beloved flowers/Devastation stares at us, face to face.’ (“May Day Song”)
A young and rebellious poet asserts in uncompromising tones:
My Spring goes by
Waiting in queues
My sleepless nights
Are torn by
Vigilant sirens (Sukanta Bhattacharya “To Rabindranath”)
Birendra Chattopadhyay’s short poem ‘The Whiff of Intoxicating Rice’ is surrealistic in its imagery that underlines the universality of hunger:
The night sky
Smells of intoxicating rice
Even now, someone out there
Cooks rice, lays it out to eat.
And we are left sleepless
Praying, the night long,
Swathed in a whiff of intoxicating rice.
In another poem, Chattopadhyay talks of the city’s landscape, its very sky, engulfed with a gigantic and metaphysical hunger:
As all other birds vanish,
Infinite crows gather all around.
The sky is filled with smoke, dust and carbon,
Day and night,
The sound of hazy wings,
The shriek of hunger! (“Mahadeber Duar, No. 28“)
Premendra Mitra’s incredibly moving ‘Phyan’ is one of the most poignant poems on the famine. Phyan or rice gruel is the water that is thrown out after the rice has been cooked in it. During the years 1943-44, it was a common sight in Calcutta’s streets to see clusters of skeletal men, women and children crying piteously to the householders: “phyan dao go” (Give us some phyan).
On the city streets
Roam strange creatures,
Human-like, yet, not quite human,
Cruel caricatures of humanity!
Yet they move and speak,
Like debris they pile up by the road,
Sit, foraging food, on piles of garbage
And cry out for phyan. (Premendra Mitra, “Phyan“)
Bengali poetry of the 1940s then assumes the twin critical roles of interlocutor and mediator of modernity in Bangla literary aesthetics. As the famine unfolded its prolonged devastations, the stage was set for other traumatic events like the pre-partition communal riots and the division of the country. The poems, born out of the famine, self-consciously steel its readers for the coming days of turbulence and terror. With a sharp-edged, realistic assessment of the famine’s psychological and social fallout, they seem to underline that in some ways we have all been its perennial victims.
 Janam Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal: War, Famine, Riots and the End of the Empire. Other important accounts of the Bengal famine can also be found in Srimanjari’s Through War and Famine and Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines. For a discussion on the various aspects of the decade in question see Tanika Sarkar and Sekhar Bandopadhyay edited Calcutta: The Stormy Decade.
 The sketch of Chittoprasad is from Hungry Bengal, reproduced from the original by Delhi Art Gallery.
 Zainul Abedin, A Saga of Man and Nature: The Art of Zainul Abedin.
 All poems of the famine taken from two anthologies, namely Taslima Nasreen edited Phyan Dao and Shiboprasad Samaddar edited Ei Kolkata Kobitar. Translations are mine.
This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol I., as part of the Coldnoon journal.