How a 50-Year-Old Novel Tackled the Pain of a Ruptured Nation

Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Bengali novel Arjun (1987) stands at the cross-sections of a layered experience which is marked by the aspects of rootlessness and alienation. The decision to divide the Indian subcontinent into three different parts based on religion was not only a mere drawing of lines but it rather had far reaching ramifications whose echoes can be heard even in the contemporary world. The past is never forgotten and the horrors of overnight uprooting of families continue to haunt the present and it stays as a liminal character.

Arjun brings to the fore multiple facets of the Partition of 1947, which was much more than a political action. It drastically changed the socio-cultural fabric of a community without even taking into account their opinion. Swapan Kumar Sarkar in ‘Literature in Bengali during Partition of India – A Case study’ says “Literature articulated the sentiments of the times and emerged as an alternative archive. The little narratives stood against the grand stories, the official was pitted against the unofficial which recorded the daily chronicles and showed the actual effect of official decisions in everyday life of the people. People were central to the literary representations, moulding the perception of the age, its contradictions, travails and anxieties.”

Gangopadhyay uses the stream of consciousness technique to add a sense of multiplicity to the narrative. Thus, also representing the idea of the nonlinearity of memory. The narrative is full of constant back and forth and flashbacks of the past. It almost is like a palimpsest of memories, filled with pain and trauma. Alluding to the concept of Marrianne Hirsch which she calls “Post Memory,” it can be stated that the trauma keeps coming back to the people in the refugee settlement area. What they remember of the past atrocities is superimposed on the kind of alienation and othering they feel even in the post-partition era. In Popular Culture in a Globalised India edited by K. Moti Gokulsing, Wimal Dissanayake, it is stated, “Speaking of a Muslim boy from a Kolkata slum, Arjun notes that he had the ‘oily look of fear, In my childhood in East Bengal, I had seen this self-same look on the faces of all my relatives and neighbours. I am sure I had had it too. The humiliation of being a minority. The mortification of not being part of things” 

Arjun, the protagonist of the novel, is situated at the center of  the refugee problem. On the one hand, he attains education and carves out his own way in Calcutta after fleeing from the erstwhile East Bengal, on the other hand, he does not want to leave his community behind. Hence, he sets out on a journey to fight for the rights of the Bengali refugees living in the Deshpran colony. “Like Krishna instructing Arjun to fulfill his dharma in the Bhagavad Gita, a local firebrand tells them. “Isn’t this your own country? It was not your fault that the country was partitioned…. You just can’t afford to sit back and wait, you must fight for your rights.” (Popular Culture in a Globalised India, 85)

The idea of ‘Home’ is constantly undercut in the novel. While some still dwell in the past and hope to go back to their ‘homeland’, others look at the opportunities in the new place and strive to claim their own identity. The complexities and the politics associated with providing proper rehabilitation and support to the refugees are very evidently represented in the narrative. The fact that Arjun and all the other people in the refugee colony fight against Kewal Singh and Mr. Dutta who constantly force the residents of Deshpran colony to evacuate the land shows us the pathetic conditions of refugees. They live in a constant fear of being uprooted again and hence, find it extremely difficult to negotiate between what is rightfully theirs and what can be taken away from them. During the conflict, “Kewal Singh’s reference to their ‘forefathers’ back in East Bengal, especially stings the refugees, for they know they are uninvited guests.” notes Pamela Lothspeich in ‘Arjun: The Plight of Landless East Bengali Refugees.’

Novel: Arjun (Bengali to English Translation)
Author: Sunil Gangopadhyay
Published Year: 1987
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-010341-0

The issue of ‘othering’ based on communal lines is the guiding force in the narrative of Gangopadhyay. It shows the problem of drawing the crooked lines based on communal ideologies that in turn wreaks havoc on communities that lived together in harmony irrespective of their religion. It instills a sense of fear and paranoia within opposing groups leading to further distrust and hatred. Hence, the refugees are torn between two different identities and have to constantly deal with the dual stigma of the refugee status. On the one hand, they are considered to be victims of communal riots, on the other hand, they are also considered as potential agents of violence. 

Arjun and many other displaced people’s positions could be defined by Hannah Arendt’s statement in the essay ‘We Refugees’ where she goes on to say, “The more optimistic among us [refugees] would even add that their whole former life had been passed in a kind of unconscious exile and only their new country now taught them what a home really looks like.” This constant struggle of an individual and its community between holding on to the past and accepting the present is very clearly depicted in Arjun.

It is interesting to note that while the settlers of Deshpran colony stand up for their human rights and refuse to give up their land, many young people covertly support Kewal Singh because they are allured to take his side with a promise of employment. Thus, depicting the individual struggle against the forces of capitalization. The exploitation meted out to people on the basis of the nationalistic rhetoric showcases the deep seated deterioration in the moral standards of a society.

Hannah Arendt notes, “The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, and to play roles.” Amidst the constant urge to ‘fit in,’ the refugees often have to jeopardize their social ties and moral integrity. The precariousness of the situation leads to conflict and social alienation where people are even afraid to complain against their own exploitation.

Suranjana Choudhury in ‘Pangs of Being ‘Un-Homed’: Engagements with ‘Displacement’ and ‘Relocation’ in Select Partition Narratives from Bengal’ states, “In the novel Gangopadhyay emblematizes the discontent surrounding relocation and gives an engaging account of violence entrenched in reconstitution of scattered, broken lives.” The mammoth task of housing millions of refugees in a completely new land not only highlighted the problem of dividing a land but also shows the particular ways in which socio-cultural and political damages are caused to the society.

“Arjun reinvents the story of the dispossessed and underscores the multilayered struggles of a refugee community to assert its existence while negotiating with all dispossessions and handicaps.” states Choudhury. Thus, it can be stated that Gangopadhyay brings in both the aspects of partition and further ramifications of it in this narrative. The struggle of the refugees to claim their own ground in a new land forms the core of the narrative. Arjun is a novel that talks about the politics of representation as far as the on ground narratives are concerned. Cutting across the mainstream archives, it upholds the reality of the situation and the turmoil that followed.


Arpita Chowdhury is a New Delhi-based post-graduation student pursuing journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. She majored in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She is the founder of Jazbaat Foundation, a Delhi-based project working to uplift underprivileged students. Arpita is an avid writer with numerous publications on National and International-level platforms. Her recent publication is a short poetry collection book titled “To The Soul.”