The Forgotten Holocaust

Witnesses remember the Bengal famine 77 years later

An estimated three million died in the Bengal famine of 1943. William Vandivert / The Life Picture Collection / Getty Images
An estimated three million died in the Bengal famine of 1943. William Vandivert / The Life Picture Collection / Getty Images
Kushanava Choudhury COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHS BY Soumya Sankar Bose
01 May, 2020


IN THE AUTUMN OF 2018, on a trip to Kolkata, I walked into a bookstore in the neighbourhood of College Street, out of habit, to see what interesting gem I could find. Among the books I picked up was the July 2018 quarterly issue of the Bengali little magazine Gangchil Patrika. The magazine had earlier published issues on a wide range of topics, including refugees, pornography and the Naxal movement. This issue was devoted to the topic of famines. Among the articles was a collection of 16 oral histories with full-page photographs of “Monnontorer Shakkhi,” or “Famine Witnesses,” compiled by Sailen Sarkar, the editor of the magazine. These were testimonies of ordinary people in the Bengal countryside who had witnessed, and survived, the Bengal famine of 1943, in which an estimated 3 million people died.

Each testimony was accompanied by a simple close-up, black-and-white portrait taken by Sarkar with a camera phone. Their names, ages and where they lived were noted at the start of each testimony. Most of the men and women were above ninety. The oldest witness claimed he was 112 years old. They had hollowed cheeks—the men with faces full of grey stubble, the women with their saris draped over their heads. Almost none of them were pictured smiling. Their eyes, unforgettable, looked straight at the camera. To me, they appeared to ask questions I did not want to ask myself.

In each interview, Sarkar wrote an introductory paragraph, sometimes explaining where the person lived, or how he had come to meet them. The witnesses spoke of a cyclone during Durga Puja in 1942 that killed thousands in a day—men, women, cattle, fish—and destroyed the paddy in the fields. They spoke of how people fled, anywhere they could, to the towns, to Calcutta, to the Sundarbans, wherever there was any promise of food. Many left their home and never returned, and many died in their homes, abandoned by their families, starving alone in their huts, sick with cholera or smallpox. The stories told of how women were sold into prostitution, of how families sold what little land they had for sacks of rice, of landlords who bought up the lands of those who starved and of looting in the homes of the dead.