Sushmita Banerjee: Author who was murdered by the Taliban

 

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.

Anne Keleny

Sushmita Banerjee, author and health worker, born Kolkata, India 1964; married 1988 Jaanbaz Khan; died Paktika, Afghanistan 5 September 2013.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Field of broken dreams: Andy Bell visits Passchendaele
news5 News's Andy Bell visited the killing fields of the Great War, and his ancestor - known only from his compelling war diary - came to life
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel