Rangey Raghav’s ‘Tufanon ke beech’- an authentic yet sensitive reportage on Bengal famine

The Bengal famine of 1942-44 was one of the worst human-made disasters of the modern history because of which 2.1 to 3 million people lost their lives not only due to starvation but also from various diseases. Multiple researchers and analysts, including Amartya Sen, have pointed out that the famine resulted from the wartime policies of the then British PM Winston Churchill of not allocating enough food grains to the drought hit region and instead exporting them to Britain which was engulfed in the second world war at the time. 

Besides the situation was exacerbated by the hoarding and speculative purchase of food grains by local traders and businessmen making already scarcely available food even more scant. The situation was so terrible that people began to die in the streets of Kolkata, then Calcutta, itself.

The Bengal famine has been considered as one of the most cruel and inhumane instances of colonial rule, especially in the Indian subcontinent and continues to be remembered in the context of politics of food allocation, poverty and hunger in the country. 

During the severe famine a team of doctors from Agra under the leadership of Dr Kunthe was sent to East Bengal to take stock of the situation under the auspices of Pragatisheel Lekhak Sangh (Progressive Writers’ Association). Rangey Raghav was sent along with them as a reporter at the young age of 19 when he was a student.

While visiting the famine affected areas in Bengal, Raghav wrote a reportage in Hindi titled, Tufanon ke Beech (Amidst the Storms) published in 1946 which holds a special place in the Hindi reportage canon. This reportage has been written in eight parts- Baandh Bhange Dao (Break the Dam), Ek Raat (One Night), Marenge Saath Jiyenge Saath (Will Die Together and Live Together), Adamya Jeevan (Indomitable Life), Tufanon ke Vijeta (The Victors of Storms), Andhkaar (Darkness), Ek Prem Patra (A Love Letter) and Buchadhkhana (Butchery). The entire text is a heart-wrenching account of the misery brought upon the people of Bengal by the horrific famine in the region between the years 1942 and ‘44. Millions of people died due to starvation because of the famine.

Throughout the reportage one comes across the terrible conditions caused by the famine on the one hand and the balance between the sensibilities of the young mind of the author and the beauty in the nature that he witnesses on the other, such that the calm and picturesque nature and the grief and suffering of the people become intertwined with both expressed through the inner turmoil of the writer.

Raghav writes in the introduction, “Bengal famine is a big blot on the history of humanity. Perhaps even Cleopatra might not have inflicted such horrific grief upon her slaves in her greed for empire and grandeur of money as much as an empire and the capitalism of our own country have inflicted today upon millions of men, women and children of Bengal by starving them to death.”

The most important inference that can be drawn from this reportage is that according to Raghav the Bengal famine was not a natural disaster; rather it was the result of the imperialist oppression. The imperialist powers exploited Bengal repeatedly which caused a factitial famine there. Through this text the author has informed the reader about the tragic circumstances of the people of Bengal due to famine. The sorrowful testimonies and questions of the people of Bengal did not let Raghav sleep for many a night. He has addressed the adverse political, economic and social impact of the famine on the contemporary society alongside baring the misery and plight of the people who had survived in the eerily silent villages, devoid of people who had died prematurely due to starvation.

Raghav writes, “As if the ultimate aim of life was to die in agony, in want of a fistful of grains….and the same people who were falling prey to the famine, after death having turned into the footmarks of monstrosity on the pathways, would break out in a terrible laughter mocking the civilisation, the humanity.”   

Raghav has extensively described the terrible situation resulting from the famine. The food was scarce. Number of crimes had increased significantly because of a feeling of helplessness. Lot of people had left their families on their own. Children died due to hunger. Women had to engage in sex trade. As Raghav writes in the reportage, he often felt as if those women were asking him, “Should we have died?” The enormity of death caused by the famine was at its peak. There were no houses left in the township. Instead, there were only ruins of mud and graves left amidst the grass.  

He has written about the various diseases that were spreading in Bengal at the time in great detail. People were dying from diseases like malaria, smallpox, skin diseases etc. but the administration was not paying any attention to them. People were unable to procure medicines made available by the government. Many required injections of medicines but the army men refused to administer them despite being paid money for the same. Many people died without treatment. Raghav writes that upon the arrival of the medical team carrying medicines and injections, people in despair became hopeful.

Raghav has also illustrated the administration’s selfishness, its indifference towards people’s needs, and the politics driven by commercial gain during this the period of crisis despite the tall claims of the government that they had “improved the condition of 75% people.” But there was belligerence among the common people who refused to give up in face of this disaster and government’s apathy.

The reportage also describes the insensitivity and injustice meted out to the farmers who were being denied seeds and other resources and how the farmers came together and fought for their rights to avail the agricultural supplies essential for farming. The weavers also faced tremendous hardships many of whom did not even have clothes left for themselves.

Many people had been forced to leave their homes because of hunger. There were separate community kitchens for Hindus and Muslims but there wasn’t sufficient food available in either of them. People even sold parts of their homes to get some money for subsistence.

Raghav was deeply affected by the struggles of each class and section of society. But he had observed that the people of Bengal had courage to face this terrible situation, which he has mentioned often throughout the text. The people there were angry with the officers and were fed up with the exploitation perpetrated by the administration and the moneylenders. They wanted to unite and fight against injustice. They didn’t know how to surrender. The reportage narrates the small and big victories that they achieved during this period.

He himself appears to be angry at the administration for not doing enough or even anything for the people but is impressed by the people’s desire for survival. He was proud that they wanted to fight for their rights. The people in the villages surrounded by graves did not become numb, rather they had a lust for life even against the insurmountable odds.

The following lines by Raghav about the belligerence of the people of Bengal resonate across time and space– “Truly no one can do anything to the people who have a consciousness. The end of these vampirish grain-robbers is not far-off who have starved them to death.”              

Raghav’s writing style has lent itself to an interesting balance between the sorrow of Bengal and an illustration of natural landscape of the region. Sometimes it seems like Raghav, saddened by the misery and despair, finds peace of mind in the natural beauty and its sustainability. But ironically whenever he gets fascinated by the nature, he begins to feel pain and sadness in the same.

Tufanon ke Beech is an invaluable text of Hindi literature which has remarkably described the dire situation caused by the severe famine in Bengal that had devasted people’s lives in every way. This type of illustration becomes a witness to the difficulties and truth of the victims and survivors forever. It also reveals the bitter reality of society and country. In the spirit of true journalism Raghav has exposed the selfishness and insensitivity of administration towards the poor labourers, farmers and the general public during the unimaginable crisis. His team contacted the people there and listened to their sorrows and sufferings intimately. 

Although there are many retrospectively authored accounts of the Bengal famine, there is a dearth of coverage from the ground that this reportage fulfills, truly justifying its name Tufanon ke Beech or Amidst the Storms. In the ongoing discourse about colonialism, its violation of human rights and its lasting impact, this reportage makes a necessary and valuable contribution which needs to be read and studied by scholars and non-academic readers alike for a richer understanding and perspective of the long-lasting adverse impact of colonialism.

All the quoted excerpts from the reportage have been translated from Hindi to English by the author of this review.

Amita Chaturvedi is an independent writer and maintains a blog by the name of Apna Parichay. You may read this article on her blog as well.

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