The Return of Daya: Prasanta Chakravarty


A close friend of mine—a fine political scientist with nuanced literary sensibilities, once suggested that he is inherently suspicious of carefreeness and gaiety in relationships, friendships and in public exchanges. One must take time, let matters marinate (‘jaarano’ he proposed in Bangla) and not be prematurely upbeat and exuberant while forging bonds and taking actions. The deficient modes of resting and concealment are important preconditions in order to take on varieties of political manipulation, social one-upmanship and literary cleverness that besets our time.

What had actually made my friend restive, I suspect, was a certain accommodative circumspection and glare that characterize expressions of literary talent and political acumen, an attribute otherwise known as correctness. It is with a similar crusading zeal for a supposed ‘pickling effect’ that we notice a proliferation of the subjective, claims for a certain authenticity that gets best reflected in memoirs and autobiographies—freshly tailored, translated and often revived these days. That such retrievals of the community memory and/or fashioning of interiority via the autobiographical are being accepted and peddled by social scientists (a mode usually fancied by the humanities folk) is not merely a declaration against ‘doing’ political economy or analytical philosophy but a more interesting drive to locate the authentic through a process of methodological revelation. Confessionary drama (the Tiger Woods case is one recent instance), reality shows and sundry blog-diaries affirm to a remarkable rise in collective narcissism where questions of authenticity are unmistakably getting mixed up with a certain performance—to act, sell, often to produce and exhibit exemplary cultural lives. In such a milieu what price concealment and marinating?


In Bangla literature, the greatest success story in recent times has been a post-partition memoir: Dayamayeer Katha (Dayamayee’s Tale), Sunanda Sikdar’s maiden work. Upon its arrival in January 2008, it received both critical and popular acclaim and in no time traversed the distance from being a cult hit to becoming an instant classic. In Bangla, partition and/or resettlement narratives are not a new phenomenon. One immediately recalls Tapan Roychoudhury’s “Romathan Othoba Bhimrotipraptor Paracharitcharcha,” (and the lesser work, “Bangalnama”) Mihir Sengupta’s “Bishadbrikkho,” and “Ujaani Khaaler Sonta,” Manash Ray’s “Kata Deshe Ghorer Khoj” and Indubaran Ganguly’s “Colonysmriti.” And now, of course, there is a spate of fresh testimonies: Adhir Biswas’ “Deshbhager Kawtha,” Nilima Datta’s “Ujaan Srote” or Mrinal Chakraborty’s “Amar Ei Aparahnarekha,” for instance. Some incisive novels and short stories have also accumulated over the years. So, what is it about Sikdar’s book that catapults it both to the bestseller list as well as commands reviews and commentaries in snooty little magazines? There are several reasons possibly: a crystal clear prose, structuring of the narrative in little self-sufficient snippets that relate to a larger inconclusive journey (about which she keeps writing in recent newspaper articles), effective managing and distancing of the space-time continuum and sheer polyphony of colourful characters that people her firmament.

But the book is not all about effective circulation of speech-acts. There are couple of proceedings that make the work special, and which I’d venture, makes it at once historically ensconced and yet transports it beyond the narrative of after-effects of mass exodus: first, a very subtle politicization of the genre of the memoir without getting busy, exemplary or politically correct. And second, more importantly, a categorical rejection of a life-world that thrives on a philosophy of marinating and inwardness. There is cruelty, retribution, pain but no refractory, indifferent grief (bishaad). Dayamoyee’s Tale, at the bedrock level, celebrates unobtrusive sharing and equity and revels in exchanges of unnecessary and limitless love. It does not forget, but calibrates and fine tunes memory so much that there is scant scope for wide eyed exuberance around ‘affective’ this and ‘subjective’ that. It does not care to give us a representative narrative of trauma and tribulation; it gives us an everyday, quite situated account of one person’s impressions over her surroundings, without an iota of sentimentalizing. The overarching rubric of daya (she uses meherbani too) Sikdar wields like a master craftsperson in order to achieve such an effect.

In his writings on Gandhi, Ajay Skaria has cautioned us on translating daya as compassion. Daya is rather coterminous with a pervasive love often, opposed to tiraskar (hateful chiding). Skaria says this: “…daya and prem point to the practice of ahimsa as the infinite giving of oneself and such infinite giving can be conceptualized, paradoxically, only as the very practice of finitude.” There is nothing metaphysical about daya, though God may be the primary practitioner of daya. God’s infinitude rather involves a radical finitude in human interactions: so that practicing and acceptance of daya provides a peculiar and exemplary freedom from settled dogmas and leads us to an open-ended sense of humility. But is the cultivation of such humility and giving-of-oneself sufficient to capture the contested terrain of everyday practice and historical contests? How can personal realization of relationality lead to a configuration of the public-political?

Ranajit Guha, on the other hand, has recently argued for a quite different trajectory of daya, in the context of Ram Mohan Roy and the modern Indian experience. Apart from reason and shastric thinking, Ram Mohan, Guha dwells, is particularly enamoured by the fostering and promotion of worldly, practical knowledge. And here Ram Mohan peculiarly marries ideals of courage, asceticism, judgement and perseverance to what will eventually be celebrated as the very foundation and index of our contemporary existence: communicability. From Vico through Shaftesbury, from Hutcheson through Hume to Immanuel Kant—a demand for universal assent for mutual communicability is in a way the story of modernity. And at least one cornerstone to such an ideal of communicability is the cultivation of empathy (sahanubhuti or samavedana) among modern agents. For Guha, it is such a liberal idea of daya that could have taken the nation in an ethical direction. But that was not to be.  Instead we took a provincial and narrow religious and political turn leading infamously to Bankimchandra’s commemoration of a counter ideal—that of muscle-power (baahubal). One can see Guha’s ideals of daya are almost a reversal of Skaria’s. A notion of daya that relies on collective/associative (saha) + empathetic feeling (anubhuti) and equal/associative (sama) + anguish (vedana) are likely to be suspicious of the limits of finitude and unlikely to conceive interactions based on non-judgemental passion and love in both personal and public life. What kind of interiority does such a notion of daya suggest? And what may be the implications if we attempt to chart Indian modernity by dovetailing it with such an ideal of empathy?

Conflicts, Tussles, Fabrications, Death

The tale (katha is both a non-fictional akhyan and a personal narrative) begins in retrospect when little Daya had not transformed herself into Sunanda (Kankan), her Hindustani identity. It is 1971 and their kamla (manual worker), a Mussalman copyholder whom she considered to be her brother, sells his last belonging and his cow and comes to visit her in India. This initiates a reluctant recollection of 9 years—1951-60, which forms the basis for the narrative time. The locale simultaneously shifts to Dighpait village in Bangladesh, where she had spent those years with her foster mother, since her parents had left for India. It is here that her tale unfolds.

Dayamayee tells us right at the outset that religion and caste structures were pretty entrenched in her village and yet it is through her account that we appreciate the shades of some changing equations. Her said brother, Majom, was looked upon with suspicion by her Hindu brethren and yet Daya learns the diurnal intricacies of everyday Islam from her brother and other acquaintances. Her foster mother, a benevolent but hardened widow, is categorical when Daya goes to play with Muslim neighbours: “Have paan, have jaggery but be careful not to touch water. That’s when you lose jaat.” But little Daya did flout her mother’s strictures. And did it often.

The two communities have a distinctive relationship with land. While Hindus refrain from getting into the fields owing to their social position and stature, the sheikhs (Muslim landowners) till the land themselves and seldom look for helping hand: “Sadi Sarkar is so well to do. Even his children are matriculate. But gathering his tafan and girdle, one sees him pushing the yoke every morning,” says a scion of the reigning Hindu zamindar family.

In a community marriage, the village brahmins and kayasthas are made to sit in the inner courtyard, the kaivartas and jolas in the central-courtyard and Mussalmans in the outer-yard. Since the zamindars and the groom-wallahs were being  served in the inner courtyard, there was no dearth of mutton, curd and other sweets. In the central-courtyard, sweets were served, but not curd. The outer-yard was supplied with just meat and fish. The maulavi-saheb, having gotten sniff of the distinctions, was greatly offended and was about to quit the scene. The organisers cajoled and jockeyed, appealing to the wobbly financial status of the bride’s father and necessity for the marriage to take place on that very night. The maulavi, putting fraternal concerns at the centre stage, agreed to overlook caste and class, but for the time being. Such transference is possible not due to goodwill and empathy, but owing to a much larger sense of ethical responsibility that could be politicised at will.

In Dighpait ripuchis (refugees) from India are a lurking subterranean presence. Says little Daya: “I guessed what ripuchi might mean. Ripu means one’s enemy. Reading of Ramayana made me aware that Ram and Ravan are each other’s ripu. I understood that Samsher-chacha and his family were my Ma’s ripus.” And then she goes on to argue with his foster mother—how ripuchis are not a girdle-waving breed but have something akin to ‘bhumiputra’ Mussalmans, which made her mother see red. Its through these direct and pesky rearguard arguments that Daya often, very subtly, ushers a change in her foster mother so that when a poor, frustrated fresh arrival from India ventures on to steal some fish from an enclosed pond, and is caught and derided, she retorts by appealing to a deeply responsible sense of daya, duly politicised: “In God’s kingdom, fruits lying beneath the trees, fishes in the local ponds, are everyone’s right. That is what we have known.” There is a remarkable entanglement of the language of common rights with that of nature’s bounty, local political tussles with much larger concerns. And Daya realizes soon enough that if any ripuchi-chacha brings money, can read and write, talk his way through, he can ensure his rights to the jungle and deal in timbres. Some refugees are more equal than others. The idea of daya is materialized.

There is entrenched impatience against the pervasive caste hierarchies, from inside, throughout the narrative without ever inculcating pre-emptive secular dismissals: “Ours is the religion of paraan (spirit/soul) saving, not dabbling in luxurious ideals and castes” a central realization that Majam weaves into Daya at a tender age, which gets diffused into everyone with whom she comes into contact, including her readers at the moment. The local zamindars, Bhuiyas, the surrogate hands of governing, comes across not just as callous and unjust, but as detached and completely unaware of the basic relational aspects of living. A strange breed, they are caught between ancient norms and forces of modernization. They try to reverse the processes of daya time and again, but are unable to meet its complexity with any long standing counter-move.

And then there is this telling puzzlement about Motilal’s son Jawahar about whom Daya learns from a refugee relative who was, at that point, trying to get settled in Dandakaranya. Jawahar has given them everything—land, though slightly hard and seed grain to sow there, initiatives to kick-start lives afresh. Even people in Dighpait kept singing paeans on Motilal’s son when they heard this bit of news.  But little Daya experiences strange goose bumps—Dandakaranya of the Ramayana? Something ominous about it, isn’t it? Something not right. Can meherbani reach there, touch those seeds? And all these at the backdrop when her foster mother is worried sick about Jawaharlal’s changing relationship with Ayub Khan.

The immanent and the hidden sometimes conjoin and foment terrible tragedies, not just in distant Dandakaranya, but in the vicinity of the remembered village. An untimely death befalls the beautiful Sudhir-da, who used to be an extremely gentle presence in the neighbourhood. He would often colour his dhoti in pink or in a yellowish tinge, sometimes would don a saree as a dhoti, loved to do his rather longish hairs, spend his spare time in the inner courtyards, helping the womenfolk in making wicks, processing pulses, grating coconuts. But being gullible and malleable, he was used at one point by some influential members of the community to scare a family through his antics. The same people stabbed Sudhir-da to a brutal death once the whole affair came to light. A shocked village is silenced. Moral indignation coupled with retribution indeed hides fatal potentialities—and neither contractual empathy or nor any language of infinite responsibility provide us with any clear answer about thinking radically on relations within the community during such times of crisis. Sikdar’s narrative powerfully pitches daya at a level where it steadfastly shuns all overstatements about confessional but also carefully distances itself from a plea to the modern ideals of sincere social exchange. People could be deeply attached and be cruel at the same juncture. Violence is constitutive of daya, is not its obverse, as Gandhi would have us believe.

Those Who Can Be Curious

In Love’s Work, Gillian Rose recounts with elation her qualification in unhappy love affairs. She reflects on someone who loves and desires you, and glories in his love and desire and you glory in his ever strange being, which comes up against you, and disappears again and again, surprising you with difficulties and bounty. To lose this is the greatest loss, a loss for which there is no consolation. She has to say this: “There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability.” This unchristian sense of mercy comes close to Daya’s tale. She would record the joyous and the joyless with an equal degree of curiosity (and not with equanimity). Things, events and relations would surprise her and this element of amazement is key to the kind of readership that the work enjoys. In spite of the varied degree of inward pulls which could only be upended with dabbling in daily tribulations, this is an absolute and untainted celebration of our kaleidoscopic existence, looking strangely and at askance onto the profound ‘pickling effect’ that our best minds on the subjective have been demanding from us.

This tangible, accessible mode of love is best exemplified by Bhuli-pishima, Daya’s aunt and a widow at ten. In spite of her scant formal education, she was blessed with an amazing interior space (mukto antahkaran—a phrase quite distant from Descartean cogito or Locke’s idea of personhood). Her life’s story was to travel in trains and living from ashram to ashram. Sometimes travelling ticketless, she would be forced to alight at some unknown railway platform, where she would stay for months, take bath under roadside taps, create new relations and do sundry work. And then may be board another train one day and the ticket-babu this time may have been dayabaan to take her to her next destination. She had discovered great joy in nourishing curiosity for things and relations in the process.  Bhuli pishima, as she recounts her endless experiences across the country, confides: “Daya, human beings are incredibly bountiful and giving; they give sleepers and shawls to complete strangers!” She would survive on a pension earmarked for widows, but would often distribute that little money to friends and loved ones. Riots she witnessed and yet considered those as an aberration in human experience, not the norm. But her abundant nature was not a fruition of any inward pacifism or liberal pluralism; it was an active mechanism that stemmed from a thought out belief in struggling with everyday conflicts, difficulties and humiliations.

There is an equally compelling snippet about Modi-bhabi, who turns completely unhinged as her fiancé Suresh is forced to depart for India. It is Daya who develops a special friendship with Modi and convinces her to continue stitching intricate cotton quilts for Suresh. Daya promises to deliver the quilts to Suresh once she would cross border and reach Hindustan. The important thing is to perceive that the workings of daya in such situations are inextricably bound to a life-world suffused with curiosity: which in this case gives rise to habitual engaging with someone whom the community considers mad and which in turn is layered by her anticipation and inquisitiveness to see a finished hand-woven artefact.

Nature works in tandem with sentient beings throughout the narrative, which brings Sikdar close to the memoirs of Monindra Gupta or Mihir Sengupta, for she often recalls her lost world through the undergrowth and foliage. But then again, natural bodies are actively left unromanticised. Majam prays to Allah and Daya listens with rapt attention: “Keep everyone contended—humans, animals, trees and shrubs, insects of all kinds.” A whole section is reserved for relating the bovine world to the readers. When one of their favourite cows Buri breathes her last, to Daya’s enquiry whether she was Mussalman, her foster mother replies that since animals are unlikely to have caste slots, Buri could be buried with no hassles.

Much of the charm in Daya’s tale lies in putting your feet up and partaking in the interstices of the everyday, the poetics of history as it were. That young Daya is unable to read books beyond the two epics, since she unable to decipher juktakhhars (conjuncts) and yet she awaits with baited breath for someone to get the Ittefaaq newspaper from Dhaka-Maimansingha, is an outward manifestation of an angst in which the reader participates with a deep anxiousness but with little anguish. Stories (shastar, in the local tongue) abounded anyway and Dakkhinaranjan Mitra-Majumdar, one of the best known exponents of Bengali children’s tales, Daya tells us, got hold of his most famous stories from the many that circulated under the double Banyans in Dighpait. As the nephew of the local zamindar he would be a regular in those story-telling sessions before he travelled to Calcutta, compiled the tales and published them as “Grandma’s Kitty” (Thakurmar Jhuli). When the local storytellers would complain about this development, Daya’s foster mother would ask them not to be resentful about others success but to rather revel that the turnings of their everyday existence are now getting circulated in print. Is it a self-reflective articulation on Dayamayee’s part, whose tales are now getting circulated in a similar fashion through the world of the print?

The very idea of curiosity and the ability to be existentially surprised and infect, colour others in that meaningless exercise is the body and soul of Daya’s narrative. Do we need to be performing either the confessional or the testmonial in order to be true to our inner turnings or to capture and chronicle sociological datum? Conversely, put, can we avoid performing and look for a self-reflective depth? Manash Ray has correctly reacted against the ethnography of the partition narrative, an approach that gets hold of the representative writings and thrives on presenting the spectacular to the purported reader and thus claims a certain authenticity over the events and lives caught up in the turmoil. This Michel De Certeau has called fake heterology.  Dayamayee’s Tale is hardly interested in the spectacular. In fact, the narrative traverses well beyond the actual events and creates a deliberate distancing from the empathetic framework of samavedana which Ranajit Guha recommends. But the cultivation of humility and acceptance of the finitude of one’s existence is never inward looking. It is not the ethical position of agape or karuna that Sikdar’s idea of daya performs. The workings of daya can be felt and touched; it is mired in the world of negotiations and strategies. But the basis of such negotiations is the ability to be surprised endlessly and scatter that ability through wanton deeds of love.

Select References:

Skaria, Ajay. “No Politics without Religion:’ Of Secularism and Gandhi (pvt. circulation).

Guha, Ranajit. Daya: Ram Mohan Roy O Amader Adhunikota (Ram Mohan Roy and Our Modernity), Kolkata: Talpata, 2010.

Rose, Gillian. Love’s Work, London: Vintage, 1997.

Sikdar, Sunanda. Dayamayeer Katha (Dayamayee’s Tale), Kolkata: Gangchil, 2010.

Ray, Manash. ‘Aapon Katha: Mithya Shotyor Prattahik Kabyo,’ (Story of the Self: Everyday Poetry of Falsehood and Truth) Nibondho Boichitrer Teen Dawshok, Kolkata: Chawrjapawd, 2010.

Samaddar, Ranabir (edt.) Reflections on Partition in the East, Sangam Books Ltd., 1997.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Other, Picador, 2004.

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