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.