Some books suddenly get the status of classics after a long dormancy. This happens because of the relevance of the book to contemporary times. They are needed to focus on the present crisis although those books were written in a different context. But in going to discuss Sushmita Banerjee’s Bengali book Kabuliwala’s Bangali Bou which was translated into English, Assamese and Marathi one will feel that nothing much changed in Talibanism although the world has changed a lot in the last two decades.
Today we find strange parallels in what is happening now and what she had related to them in her book written as a memoir Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou in 1995 (A Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife 1997); based on her experience of marrying an Afghan and her time in Afghanistan during Taliban rule.
The book reveals the horrible activities of the Taliban in Afghanistan and as it came from a woman’s pen it gained a greater significance because we know how in this Taliban’s Afghanistan Yusufzai Malala was going to be killed when she advocated female freedom and education.
She survived the killing attempt of the Taliban and attracted the attention of the World and even got Nobel Prize but unfortunately the other writer, Sushmita Bandhopadhyay renamed Sayeda Kamala was brutally killed at age 49 by suspected Taliban militants during the evening of September 4 or in the early morning hours of September 5, 2013, outside her home in Sharan city of Afghanistan`s Paktika province Afghanistan.
She was born in (1963/1964 – 4/5 September 2013) and carved a niche for herself as a brave writer and activist from India in Afghanistan.
Her works include Talibani Atyachar—Deshe o Bideshe (Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan and Abroad), Mullah Omar, Taliban O Ami (Mullah Omar, Taliban and I) (2000), Ek Borno Mithya Noi (Not a Word is a Lie) (2001) and Sabhyatar Sesh Punyabani (The Swansong of Civilisation).
Her daring marriage to an Afghan moneylender unwittingly paved the way for Sushmita Banerjee’s fame. At the end, it sowed the seeds for her gruesome death as well. Even after escaping the Taliban, she could not resist the lure of Afghanistan. Family members of author Sushmita Banerjee, who was shot dead by masked gunmen in Afghanistan, claimed that they had asked her not to return to the troubled country, but she did not listen insisting that the situation had changed there.
As the news of the grisly death of Kabuliwala’s Bengali Bride spread in Kolkata, the foremost question in everyone’s mind is “Why did she go back?” Sushmita Banerjee was born in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) to a middle-class Bengali Brahmin family. Her father worked in the civil defense department and her mother was a homemaker.
She was the only sister to her three brothers. She first met her future husband Janbaz Khan, an Afghan businessman, at a theatre rehearsal in Calcutta and married him on July 2, 1988. The marriage took place secretly in Kolkata, as she feared her parents would object.
When her parents tried to get them divorced, she fled to Afghanistan with Khan. She then discovered that her husband had a first wife, Gulguti. In her book, Gulguti is described as one of her brother-in-law’s wives. Although shocked, she continued to live in Khan’s ancestral house in Patiya village, with her three brothers-in-law, their wives, and children.
Khan later returned to Kolkata to continue his business, but Banerjee could not return.
Banerjee made two abortive attempts to flee Afghanistan. She was caught and held under house arrest. A fatwa was issued against her and she was scheduled to die on July 22, 1995. With the help of the village headman, she finally fled. She reached Kabul and took a flight back to Kolkata on 12 August 1995. Adhir Biswas and Sailen Sarkar helped her make a book out of the manuscript.
“As we read through it, we thought we were reading a thriller”. Sushmita was tortured and kept in confinement for days. After reaching Afghanistan, she was appalled at the way women around her were treated. She started forming a group of women and in doing that, she faced the wrath of the Taliban,” remembered Swapan Biswas, her publisher, who helped her name her book ‘Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou’ and found her a publisher.
As a Bengali progressive, she could not adjust to the situation there. There was not a moment’s peace and bullets flew everywhere as people cowered for their lives. She was targeted for being an outsider who was trying to raise a band of women to take on the mighty Taliban.
According to her publisher Swapan Biswas she wanted to get her new novel released. “She had come to my office in January (2013) shortly before she left for Afghanistan. That time she said that she will hand over the manuscript of her next book before the Durga Puja (in October),” Biswas said.
She had plans to write about the contemporary scenario of Afghan women…she was extremely optimistic about it and had planned everything out. That was the last Kolkata saw of Sushmita. After returning to Afghanistan, she worked as a health worker in Paktika Province in south-eastern Afghanistan and began filming the lives of local women.
According to Afghan police, suspected Taliban terrorists forced enters into her house in Paktika on the night of 4 September, 2013. They bound her husband and abducted her. Her corpse was found early the next day on the outskirts of provincial capital Sharana.
The body had 20 bullet marks. Police surmised she might have been targeted for various reasons. The Taliban denied involvement. Later, a spokesman for a renegade Taliban militia group announced it had killed Banerjee because they believed she was “an Indian spy”. No one was sure why Sushmita went back to Afghanistan once again and was killed there. Her bullet-riddled body was discovered not far from Sarana.
Two friends from the literary world who had helped Sushmita Banerjee re-tell her story about life in Taliban Afghanistan and a filmmaker who had made a film about that life see vivid scenes rush back to them as the world watches Afghanistan in horror.
The story of Kabuliwala’s Bangali Bou was used as the basis for the Bollywood film Escape from Taliban. Sushmita Banerjee wrote Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou (“A Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife”) in 1995. In 2003, the book was made a film directed by Ujjwal Chatterjee as Escape from Taliban, a Bollywood film, starring Manisha Koirala.
Before the film was shot, the filmmaker and his team accompanied Sushmita to Sarana, her in-law’s village in Afghanistan. No one was sure why Sushmita went back to Afghanistan once again and was killed there.
The heart-rending description moistens our eyes even today. “The day we reached, we saw a girl running for life and a few men chasing her with guns. This was repeated with another girl the day after. We were horrified. Soon, we were contacted by the Indian embassy. We were asked to return to Kabul and leave the country since it was not safe,” filmmaker Ujjwal Chatterjee recalled.
Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee is an academician and poet based in Kolkata. He may be reached at: [email protected]