Writer paid bride price with life for marrying danger
By Sumit Mitra | Published: 08th September 2013 07:13 AM |
A thickset woman with jowly face, accompanied by a Pathan husband with the shifty look of a Kolkata moneylender familiar, she was not quite the company one sought. Besides, she put off every stranger by rattling off anecdotes from her own book, Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou (Bengali Bride of the Kabuliwala), in 1998, just after it was published. With her unsolicited reading sessions came a variety of requests, like finding an “affordable” translator, putting in a word with newspaper editors for a favourable review, or if someone was there who could help her repackage the book as a screenplay for a Bollywood movie at a later date. It was enough to make visitors look for an excuse to leave. But Sushmita Banerjee soon made her critics eat crow. In just about a year, the book became the bestseller of Bengali publications, and, by 2003, the film too made it to the marquee. Manisha Koirala played the Bengali bride of Sushmita’s autobiographical account of her seven years’ stay with her in-laws, poles apart culturally, at their village home in Paktika province near Ghazni.
She lived in Afghanistan in the first half of the 1990s through its worst turmoil in recent history, with the Taliban beating back the invading Soviet forces and, soon afterwards, taking under its thumb not only the country’s politics but every aspect of its social and personal life. Far from playing a meek Hindu wife, Sushmita acted, as she described in her book, the role of a fighting woman who once challenged a congregation of the Taliban and her family patriarchs, apparently to decide her own fate, with a Kalashnikov rifle in hand, “loaded with 60 bullets”. Her escape in 1995 is just as exciting as her culture shock, in a family where cruelty to other human beings is accepted and incest is a way of life, despite Taliban bombasts about sexual purity.
Janbaz Khan, her husband, obviously put her at great risk by leaving her in Afghanistan and slinking back to Kolkata to resume his business. But she was reunited with him after her return to India. Sushmita also had the chutzpah to turn her nightmare into a book of Afghanistan that people remember for its close observation of daily life, something missing in the highly successful Afghan trilogy of Khaled Hosseini, including The Kite Runner. Sushmita’s book lacks the elegance of Hosseini, who settled in the US in 1980, but her book is rich with the smell of life in a Pashtun village clan. There she even practiced as quack, her knowledge of medicine, in her words, being restricted to “Practice of Medicine” by Dr S K Pande.
With the passage of years, as events overtook Sushmita’s knowledge of Afghanistan, and the couple’s income dipped with speculative investments, she returned to that accursed land hoping that one more visit might help update her experience. It was the call of devil she could not resist. Early Thursday morning, some unidentified people reportedly stormed into her house, kept her husband gagged with his hands and feet tied, and dragged her out. In the morning, her body was found riddled with 20 bullets, in front of a madrasa, at a place called al-Jihad. It is some distance from her house.
The Afghan Taliban is of course the usual suspect. But BBC reports a local Taliban official denied all responsibility for the attack. It is also a normal practice for Afghan Taliban hardliners to disown operations. But it is quite enigmatic that the Taliban of another generation—so many years have gone by since she fought with them last—would remember her for her Bengali book, or the film that did not set the box-office on fire. But much of the clue as to where the plot to murder Sushmita originated from could be found in her book. It is clear that most of her in-laws, particularly the males, found it difficult to stomach one of their own men marrying an infidel who had the cheek to run a pharmacy, which is a business. An independent woman!
Scratch the skin of Afghanistan, and there isn’t a way of knowing who’s Taliban and who’s not. Maybe this could be the theme of Sushmita’s new book.
Mitra is a senior journalist