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In a strange land

Himani Kothari | New Delhi |

How is a person’s identity constructed? Does it owe to the place people hail from, or the place they are in or end up in? Does the language in which they articulate their ideas define them, or are their choices that make them what they are or what they have become?

The protagonist in “In a Foreign Land, By Chance”, a Bengali woman poet living in London, struggles with some of these questions as she faces the existential crisis of being far away from her home, her people and her language — given that she writes in English. And they pop up all the more when she visits an East Bloc nation for a literary meet.

How did Bipasha even end up where she is? That is the basis of this evocative story by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, set in the 1970s, and drawing some parallels between the “police state” that West Bengal had become in response to the Maoists (who were no democrats either) and the repressive Gustav Husak regime in Czechoslovakia, in the wake of the abortive Prague Spring.

But above all, it focuses on the human quest for “home”, belonging, handling loss and nostalgia — and making our future.

Bipasha is a privileged, status-quoist Bengali who falls in love with a “red” activist. But when he is caught and jailed, she escapes West Bengal to end up in London. She is looking for many things apart from closure. But will she find any of them there or during her stint in Czechoslovakia?

Apart from some closure, Bipasha does find comfort of sorts in the communist nation, the same communism she had hated in her country and had run away from.

“Many things in East Europe reminded Bipasha of her country. After about five years in the West, she suddenly felt as though she had come closer to home. Yet, she couldn’t put a finger on exactly where the similarity lay.”

Told in the third person, the narrative goes back and forth as everything reminds Bipasha of lost love and questions left unanswered, of unsaid goodbyes and loss of identity.

Though the character of Bipasha feels a bit of a pushover at times, dependent on her wealthy father and easily surrendering to her family’s demands, she is a feminist in her own way. She stands her ground in a foreign land. Though sometimes guilty, she is not afraid to enjoy her newly-found sexual liberation or to question the way of life of the people she finds herself in the midst of.

In this pensive novella, Sen, who was once married to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, gives an insight into life in communist Czechoslovakia, where the Stalinist regimes of Klement Gottwald and Antonin Novotny had eased briefly under Aleksandr Dubcek before Warsaw Pact armies intervened to reinstate a totalitarian system, making most people live in fear of the secret police, afraid of everything.

While not exactly a critique of communism, the work does show its dark side — how it oppresses and represses the same people it claims to stand up for — while drawing on similarities between Soviet-style communism in satellite nations and communism in India.

It also talks about the power and politics of language. And the fact that Sen chose to write the novel in Bengali, her mother tongue, is perhaps the strongest statement.

“Language! Of course. Wasn’t that the primary weapon of imperialism? Forceful introduction into a different culture and thought path through the medium of language. Else, how would the brainwash be possible? Now Bipasha understood what the argument was all about and why.”

Translated by Soma Das many decades later, this still feels as fresh and relevant as was the original in 1977, and will strike a deeper chord given the increasing strength of the diaspora.

We travel for various reasons, but some places give us more than we take from them. This book by Nabaneeta Dev Sen shows one of them.