Sushmita Banerjee: Author who was murdered by the Taliban
Thursday 26 September 2013
The age-old attraction of tall, handsome men from the mountains north-west of India sealed the fate of a soft, dreamy girl from Kolkata when she fell in love with one of the city's migrant Afghan fruit sellers, whom she had met at a theatre. Sushmita Banerjee, educated daughter of middle-class parents with hopes of a bright future, was instead to die at 49, in the middle of the night in a comfortless place far from home, her body riddled with bullets from an AK-47, and her face obliterated.
Her beloved, Jaanbaz Khan, from Afghanistan's wild Paktika province, was one of the "kabuliwallahs", still also called "moneylenders", who have travelled to trade their wares in Kolkata ever since its days as the capital of the British Raj.
The book Banerjee wrote about her marriage to him echoes the story by the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore, "Kabuliwallah", published in 1892, about the relationship between an Afghan and a small Indian girl. Banerjee entitled her work Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou or "The Kabuliwallah's Bengali Wife". So heart-rending was her 21st century tale that the director and playwright Ujjal Chattopadhyaya made a Bollywood film in 2003 starring the beautiful Nepalese-Indian actress Manisha Koirala.
Banerjee's family, from the topmost Brahmin caste – her father was a public servant in the Indian Ministry of Defence – disapproved of the marriage, but it went ahead under India's Special Marriages Act of 1954, derived from a British one of 1872, allowing people of different religions to marry.
From 1989 until 1995, Banerjee, known in Afghanistan as Sayida Kamala, and believed by some to have converted to Islam, though others say she remained a Hindu, lived with her husband behind 12ft high mud walls in a small village, Patiya, near Paktika's capital, Sharan. Her first shock on arriving was to find that he already had a wife, Gulguti, with whom he had three daughters.
Nevertheless she and Jaanbaz were still in love. She opened a small pharmacy for the women of the village, and he hoped she would give him a son.
But the scene darkened as Taliban forces in Afghanistan took hold. Jaanbaz was able to travel to and from Kolkata, but Banerjee was confined to the family compound. She found herself arrested and her pharmacy closed. While her husband was away she decided, still childless, to flee a life that she had begun to call a "dungeon of darkness", in which her husband's relations treated her "like a stray dog".
She reached Pakistan, not far away across Paktika's eastern border, but was caught and returned to the compound she now loathed. Once again she escaped, with the help of the village headman, and Chattopadhyaya's film, Escape from the Taliban, shows Koirala as Banerjee – in the adaptation accompanied by a daughter –dancing with joy at her precarious freedom, and in the background the inhospitable mountains she must cross.
The day she first stepped again on Indian soil, Banerjee told the Indian online news and shopping site Rediff, it was raining heavily. "But I didn't run. I just stood there and let the rain wash off my pain. I felt if I could bear so much in Afghanistan, I can surely bear my motherland's rain."
Having safely reached her native Bengal, Banerjee wrote of her escape and was published by the Kolkata house of Bhasha o Sahitya. She wrote four other books, all of them about the effects of Taliban rule, and stayed in Kolkata for the next 18 years, speaking of her pride in her own family members who had got beyond her own 12th grade senior secondary school level in education. She also won the Uttam Kumar Prize, named after the 20th-century Bengali actor and musician, for traditional "jatra" Bengali folk theatre.
Her husband joined her for some time in India, but little by little his Kolkata business interests dwindled and failed. After her parents died, as hopes seemed to rise of better conditions in Afghanistan, she decided in January to go back to be with him in his homeland. Her last visit to Kolkata was for four days in June this year, during which she bought medicines to take back for Afghan village women.
Villagers spoke well of her: "she was a very kind woman. She was very educated. She knew the internet", one said. In her own account of her difficulties she told the Indian magazine Outlook in 1998: "The members of the Taliban who called on us were aghast that I, a woman, could be running a business establishment. They ordered me to close down the dispensary and branded me a woman of poor morals".
Despite her literary success Banerjee was plagued by a lack of money. She blamed her poverty on her own failure to secure proper payment for her work.
The end came on the night of 4 September, when gunmen entered the Patiya compound, tied up Jaanbaz, and from another room carried Banerjee away in her nightdress, interrogated her for three hours, then shot her 20 times, leaving the body close to a "madrasa" Islamic school. The suicide group of the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, a breakaway Taliban militia, claimed responsibility, alleging that Banerjee was an Indian spy.
After her death, hardened Western veterans of Afghan military campaigns voiced their sympathy for her on online forums, and on Kolkat street stalls the last few copies of her book sold out. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, paid tribute to her as a "victim of Taliban wrath", and the Bengal leader Mamata Banerjee – not closely related despite the name – called for her body to be taken back to India.
Sushmita Banerjee, author and health worker, born Kolkata, India 1964; married 1988 Jaanbaz Khan; died Paktika, Afghanistan 5 September 2013.
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