“Who should I owe allegiance to?” Ideological Conflict in Asif Currimbhoy’s The Refugee: A One-Act Play
Avishek Bhattacharya, Dept of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva Bharati
History of dispossession and migration repeated itself during the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971 when the East Pakistani refugees escaped their homeland in order to survive and found their asylum in the bordering towns of West Bengal. This event laid bare the wounds of the partition of India in 1947 which took time to heal. Asif Currimbhoy’s one-act play The Refugee hinges round the refugee exodus of 1971 and breaks apart the notion of homogeneity that has been attributed to the refugees time and again. The identity of a refugee is often shaped by his allegiance to his nation, community and religion. This is also a token to the treatment he is supposed to get from the host nation. The nature of acceptance also depends on the socio-political and religious fervour of the locale of the asylum. Thus the shaping of the identity of the refugees and their acceptance by the host nation are specifically governed by ideology. Ideological conflict runs as a subtext weaving the fabric of the play which mainly pivots round the transformation of the central character. This paper will trace how the ideological conflicts between issues like being committal and noncommittal, narrow nationalist interest and humanitarian concern, acceptance and negation, and finally between the two factions of a given religion shape individual characters and transform them in the course of the play.
In the global postcolonial space multiple histories of violence and dispossession recur time and again unravelling the wound that took time to heal. The Eurocentric idea of nation-state has forged spaces into nations harping on the idea of forced homogeneity ignoring the prevalent differences. This is clearly evident in the case of the creation of Pakistan which was carved out from India during the partition of 1947. Two topographically separated lands, East and West Pakistan were merged together to form a new nation on the basis of religious identity. This physical difference was echoed in the linguistic and cultural differences. For West Pakistani political leaders religious identity fell short as a potential marker for homogeneity and national integrity and they insisted on the linguistic and cultural assimilation. 1952’s Bhasa Andolon resisted to the linguistic assimilation and finally led to the demand of a new nation for the inhabitants of East Pakistan. Economic deprivation on the part of West Pakistan added to the woe. Consecutive military regimes of West Pakistan failed to draw any political solution to the problem and eventually took recourse to coercive measures to draw a quick solution to the problem. It resulted into rampant massacre, mayhem, rapes in the name of ethnic cleansing, loot and arson. Thousands of people left their homeland in order to survive and took refuge in the neighbouring nation of India. The refugee influx of 1971 in the borderlands of the eastern part of India was a sharp reminder of that of the 1947’s. Asif Currimbhoy’s one act play The Refugee pivots round the issues of the refugee influx of 1971.
Pitted against the backdrop of the Bangladesh liberation war the play opens briefly after 25th March, 1971 when the talks between Sheikh Mujib and Yahya khan failed and the intellectuals of the Universities of East Bengal were brutally killed resulting into the first mass exodus of refugees after 1947. The setting of the play is an anonymous border town of West Dinajpur district in West Bengal. Most of the border towns of West Bengal are infested with the refugees of 1947 who bear the scars of the partition and share a common bond with the lost homeland. The anonymity of the place may be a token towards that commonality. Prakash Sen Gupta, himself a refugee of 1947 welcomes Yassin, an East Pakistani Muslim and son of his childhood friend Rukaiya to his household. Yassin is a young intellectual from Comilla University who luckily survived the intellectual massacre. Sen Gupta family welcomes him as a guest and lets him feel at home. Sen Gupta admits that the memories of the lost home bind the East Bengalis together irrespective of their religion. Being one he is sympathetic towards the pangs and plight of the refugees and his family also shares his feelings. However, the scenario changes when the number of the refugees increases in leaps and bounds. They capture the open fields, unused sewerage pipes and even points to Sen Gupta’s garage to be captured. Brutal reality throws Sen Gupta’s idealism into sheer crisis. Refugees are now seen by him as an imminent threat towards his household and community. Incredibly Yassin being happy with his settlement in the cosy study room of Sen Gupta and a university job remains unperturbed to the entire situation. He does not acknowledge himself to be one among the refugees and hardly talks about his home. Ironically Sen Gupta’s son Ashok wants to join the Mukti Fauj at the dismay of his parents. Ramul, the eccentric leader of the refugees “appears to be intended as a foil to Yassin” (50) and is conscious about the refugees’ right to life. Mita, Sen Gupta’s daughter is an activist of the refugee rehabilitation programme. Her involvement glaringly unravels Yassin’s intentional nonchalance. Yassin’s encounter with Mita unsettles his passivity. Yassin overhears Sen Gupta’s conversation with Professor Mosin when Sen Gupta says that the refugee exodus is an undeclared war by Pakistan and India should retaliate. Yassin vehemently protests showing his allegiance to his homeland Pakistan. In the meantime Mita anxiously declares that cholera has broken out in the refugee camp and quests for morality and conscience in order to deal with the situation. Persuaded by her plea Yassin visits the refugee camp with Professor Mosin and come across Ramul who is playing a mock trial mimicking the butchery of the innocents in East Pakistan. At Yassin’s intervention Ramul releases the innocent Muslim and to his surprise reveals that it was just a game. Here Ramul’s act of releasing the prisoner assuming that he will hang himself sums up the vulnerable situation of the refugees who are destined to be doomed. Ramul’s unprecedented act followed by a quick conversation throws Yassin into an incomprehensible world between real and unreal. At night Yassin makes a lone visit to the refugee camp and helps a young woman burying her mother. He asks her to pray for his salvation. He comes back to his room and packs his bag to leave. He thanks Mita for saving him from being noncommittal and claims her to be his ideal. He leaves the house taking Ashok’s Mukti Fauj uniform being unsure if he is doing the right thing or not. Critiquing The Refugee Chandrika B writes,
Here in The Refugee we can see all the characteristics of a full-fledged well-made play, consisting of exposition, rising action, climax denouement and conclusion and also other ingredients like melodramatic situations, high-flown dialogue, etc. The first scene is expository in nature, establishing the background and introducing almost all the characters. The action slowly mounts to a climax-to Mita’s hysterical outburst, rousing and inspiring Yassin to shake off his indolence and search for his conscience (Scene III). In scene IV the denouement begins, and the play comes to a conclusion when Yassin leaves the Sen Gupta household. (51)
The central theme of the play is the transformation of Yassin, his realisation of his identity as a Muslim refugee, commitment and responsibility towards his community and nation. However, “...it is the ideological conflict that forms the subtext of the play” (57). In the very first scene, the ideological problem sets the tone of the play. Yassin clears his stand, “Not all of us...were politically involved. Some...preferred to remain uncommitted” (Currimbhoy 12) and by uncommitted he means that as an intellectual of the Dhaka University his ultimate vocation is scholarship. He prefers the path of contemplation to action and wants to abstain himself from the liberation war. Commitment is a matter of personal choice. However, the pivotal question that Yassin raises is that whether a citizen has the right to remain noncommittal during the time of the crisis of his nation. Unlike Sen Gupta Yassin sees action as interference and not as help which can bring tragedies instead of solving problems. Pitted against apathetic Yassin Sen Gupta proves himself to be a man of responsibility when he tells Yassin,
As long as there’s room to live in and food to share, I promise you there will always be shelter in this town for those who need our help. Many of us came here uprooted after partition. Settled down, worked hard, built proudly our own positions in life, but not without a sense of responsibility and social purpose. What we do is equally for you...as for ourselves... (14)
The refugee exodus in the town changes the scenario altogether. Chandrika B rightly says, “...Currimbhoy traces the conflict in the individuals between the forces of narrow nationalism and humanism (Sen Gupta’s inborn conflict)....” (Chandrika 57). Refugees encroach open land, unused sewerage pipes and intend to occupy the school building and even Sen Gupta’s garage. Sen Gupta’s idealism wanes because the refugees appear to be an imminent threat to his household. His ‘Bengali neighbours’ transform into ‘Pakistanis’ and thus they are different from the Indian refugees of 1947 like Sen Gupta himself. The religious identity of the Bengali Muslim refugees makes them unwanted. Interestingly the Bengali Muslims have been persecuted from their homeland for being Bengali and they are equally unwanted in their new asylum in a border town in West Bengal for being Muslim. The precarious nature of their identity probably makes them the most vulnerable group compared to the Bengali Hindu refugees. The watertight idea of nation-state cuts across religion creating factions within a given religion. Sen Gupta’s acid remark to Professor Mosin, “I can see the Muslim community in India has been remarkably restrained” (Currimbhoy 31) attests to this politics of faction. Islamic brothers’ silence at the massacre in a Muslim country unsettles Sen Gupta. In the postcolonial nation- state minority politics plays an important role in order to keep balance across the nations. Pakistan’s persecution of the Hindus has put that balance into question. Sen Gupta’s apprehensive remark, “... how much longer will we in India remain secular?” (32) lays bare the vulnerable condition of the minority politics.
Sen Gupta welcomed Yassin, “As friends and neighbours...” (14) and he does not treat him as the refugees of the outside. However, his attack on the Bengali Muslims is an indirect attack on him as well. To Sen Gupta’s surprise, Yassin is peculiarly indifferent to the entire situation. “He’s closed his mind to the past. Never talks about...politics or refugees or his home” (22). Sen Gupta’s wife Sarala quite aptly clarifies that he wants to, “Shrug off the stigma... of being a refugee...” (14). Here Ramul, the eccentric leader of the refugees is a clear contrast. Unlike Yassin he acts and learns that even the refugees are “...not altogether unwanted.” (27). They are needed as miscreants to take advantage of the poor law and order system. The ideological conflict between Yassin and Ramul is limited to the idea of action and inaction. Such a conflict is also evident between Mita and Yassin. Mita works for the rehabilitation of the refugees out of humanitarian concern whereas Yassin does not even count their existence. Yassin feels that everyone should lead his own life because, “All pain comes from attachment, all wrongs come from self- interest” (29). On the contrary for Mita life means to act and inaction amounts to committing wrong. Being unable to break Yassin’s slumber Mita takes refuge to melodramatic rhetoric,
Oh Yassin, touch me! Can’t you see I’m a human being? Can’t you see I’m real? Aren’t you moved? ...The refugees exist the same way. ... I can’t bear to leave them alone. All life draws me...the human condition. The need and recognition. If...if all of us were to... abstain the way you do, we’d be doing harm, don’t you see, the kind of harm that is deliberately done through neglect.... (29)
Mita pleads him not to be a dreamer like her father. The ideological conflict between different generations is evident here. Mita’s father dreams of his lost home but wants to seal the border to stop the refugee exodus from his homeland. He lacks his daughter’s humanitarian concern and finds the refugees to be a threat to his community. To him, the refugee exodus is an undeclared war by Pakistan on India and it should be retaliated. Overhearing Sen Gupta’s words Yassin protests and probably for the first time shows his allegiance to Pakistan and proves his concern for the lives of the innocents. He is deemed as a traitor by Sen Gupta. In his defence he says that, “... I will never be a traitor to my mother’s love... or to Bengal....You must allow me... freedom of thought and action, or else you deprive me of refuge in this very house of yours” (33). Yassin’s words sum up the condition of the refugees who are deprived of free thought and action. They have to be at the mercy of the host nation devoid of dignity and integrity. A significant trace of transformation is visible in Yassin.
Mita declares that cholera has broken out in the refugee camp and refugees are dying like flies. She hysterically craves for sympathy and conscience. Yassin responds to her call and visits the refugees with Professor Mosin. Being hidden he sees Ramul playing the role of the saviour of the Hindu refugees. Like the ‘Razakar’, Yahya’s local collaborators in East Pakistan he wants to ‘weed out the undesirables from the refugee camps” (37). Currimbhoy uses Ramul’s caricature to unfold the brutality of the Pakistani army. Ramul has been placed as a direct contrast to Yassin who is pragmatic enough to reveal that Yassin is guilty of negating life. In his second visit to the camp he helps a young girl to bury her mother and asks her to pray for his salvation. He goes back to Sen Gupta household and decides to leave taking away Ashok’s Mukti Fauj Uniform being unsure of his decision being right or not. Chandrika B rightly sums up the situation, “His leaving Sen Gupta’s house is a logical step in the evolution of his character, but the means employed by the playwright to achieve this does not seem to be justified” (Chandrika 55).
In the final scene, the encounter between Yassin and Professor Mosin reveals the conflict ‘between different factions within the same religion’ (57). Mosin etches a difference between Indian and Pakistani Muslims for their individual allegiance towards their respective nations. Yassin’s conjecture reveals the brutal social reality that the presence of the Pakistani Muslim has jeopardised the position of the Indian Muslim. He acknowledges that he is actually a ‘bird of passage’ who does not need to co-exist with the Hindus of his nation (42). Yassin’s acknowledgement somehow justifies his act of departure. Yassin manages to overcome the barrier of narrow self-interest which Sen Gupta and Professor Mosin fail to do. Ideological conflict plays an important role in the development of the characters and gives a psychological insight to the characters of the play. Chandrika B’s words appropriately capture the spirit of ideological discourses embedded in the play.
Each character, except those of the younger generation, fluctuates in belief and adjusts his ideology to suit his or her needs. Yassin could retreat to his comfortable den without taking sides, without getting involved. But how long can an individual live in society non-committally? Yassin is dragged back and plunged headlong into action. Sen Gupta, full of the milk of human kindness for the refugees, finds his idealism waning when faced with practical problems. Professor Mosin, so eager to help his Muslim brother from across the border, changes his stance when he finds the position of the Indian Muslim in jeopardy. This play is not a documentary on the refugee-rehabilitation programme, it is really a projection of the ideological conflicts in various individuals. (58)
B, Chandrika. “The Refugee: A Critique” in Asif Currimbhoy’s The Refugee: A One-Act Play. Kolkata: Writers Workshop, 1993. Print.
Currimbhoy, Asif. The Refugee: A One-Act Play. Kolkata: Writers Workshop, 1993. Print.