Search for 'Graham Greene' on the Internet and you will have to wade through a whole lot of hits on the actor of the same name; look up 'Distant Thunder' and most of the links lead to the Hollywood movie of the VietNam war. Read Adam Gopnik's review of new books on Churchill and you will not find a single reference to Madhusree Mukerjee's 2010 book 'Churchill's Secret War' - because Gopnik can see history only through a Euro-centric lens.
Watching Satyajit Ray's 'Ashani Sonket' many years ago was an uneasy experience for me. This is the Ray film I prize most, and the one hardest to rent (the subtitled version, which was released in the West as 'Distant Thunder', can now be accessed on veoh.com under the Bengali title). Thunder is not the only ominous sound that introduces the film. There is the cacophony of a flight of startled birds, the sustained whoosh of a cloudburst, and the growing drone of approaching planes, all superposed on a scene of lush rice paddies, a sea of swaying green suggesting fertility and tranquility. For war and weather, plenty and unrest, are the indisputable starting points of the Bengal famine of 1943. 'Ashani Sonket' to me, if I may interpret the first language I ever spoke, means 'an omen from the skies'.
The generally accepted facts of the famine are presumably those laid out in the Wikipedia article. But look below the surface and you will find the highly contentious discussions the subject has provoked. One gets the feeling that the original authors were hobbled by critics using Wikipedia's much vaunted gold standard of NPOV as a bludgeon to silence inconvenient conclusions and opinions. As a result, the article puts a lot of emphasis on the written histories to date ('just-the-facts-maam'), and on sterile discussions of agronomy and its statistics .
Mukerjee's book, as the title suggests, is an indictment of Churchill's gross neglect of India, in keeping with his vile opinions of the land (and of Hindus in particular), and his dogged determination to annihilate the independence movement. India had been the cash cow of the British empire for three centuries and he was not about to let it go on the demands of a 'half-naked fakir'. Mukerjee's firm stand in this respect, bolstered by a wealth of hitherto unexploited source material, makes the book an indispensable addition to the growing body of Churchilliana, especially since the man himself, self-servingly, never mentioned the disaster in his memoirs. She notes that the sole mention of the famine is to be found in an appendix.
I am surprised that a book with such a catchy title, published in the US, has yet to be reviewed in the major periodicals. When it does find such publicity it will no doubt attract the disparagement that befalls books critical of the fat man. Nicholson Baker's 'Human Smoke' is the only book I know of that takes a similar stance; predictably, it was decried by the usual gang of Churchill fans. Typical of this crowd is the denigration accorded to any claims that the man had any responsibility for the Bengal famine. Mukerjee has not yet had to contend with such critics, judging from the sparse reviews of her book on the Internet.
The prologue and first two chapters of the book - 'Our Title to India', 'Empire at War' and 'Harvesting the Colonies' - provide a masterful synopsis of British rule in India and the independence movement, and an eye-opening tutorial on the economics of empire as it pertained to India What follows is the story of the avoidable death of three million people, comparable to any genocide the West is aware of. Mukerjee's story is based on an impressive body of sources that includes conventional history books, contemporary accounts of the disaster, recently declassified documents, and most crucially, eye-witness accounts in English and Bengali - much of it inaccessible to all but professional historians. As a piece of subaltern history I judge the book to be a masterpiece. For its readability alone I recommend this book to one and all.
Mukerjee's current occupation is variously listed on the Internet as journalist and housewife. I was amazed to learn that the author is not a historian but a scientist with a Ph.D. in physics, and a former member of the board of editors at Scientific American. The arch-fiend in her story, Frederick Lindemann, 'Prof', later ennobled as Lord Cherwell, was also a physicist, eminent enough to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society. A eugenicist and an unabashed racist, he was Churchill's right hand man in a War Cabinet which consisted almost entirely of sycophants eager to carry out their boss' muddle-headed policies. Noted exceptions were Leopold Amery, the Secretary of State for India, and Gen. Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, both of whose memoirs were censored or otherwise withheld until decades after the War.
When she broached the subject with academic historians, Mukerjee was dissuaded from the project with words to the effect that it would lead nowhere, that the war had precluded the possibility of diverting resources to avert famine. This, after all, was the the summation of western historians all along. Mukerjee is to be commended for her perseverance in the face of such discouragement, and for her courage to lay the blame where it belongs. Gopnik deserves a slap on the wrist for his myopia and neglect of her book.
Reading Mukerjee's extracts of eyewitness accounts, I am reminded of the many similarities between the Indian freedom struggle and the civil rights movement in the southern US. Personal racial violence and repressive measures by the authorities were to be expected as part of a shameful socio-political system that had lingered too long. Added to this deadly scenario Bengal had also to contend with the effects of a cyclone that destroyed the rural economy, the pestilence that followed, and a World War which vacuumed away what was left of it. This left the countryside with far less than minimum subsistence - more meager, she reports, than the starvation diets given in Nazi concentration camps. Also, during the civil rights movement no incendiary bombs were used on the populace, there was no systematic destruction of villages, no widespread fear of rape, and no deprivation of food.
I mentioned Ray's film to my mother on one of her visits and it evoked in her a painfully vivid memory of those times. We lived in Bihar at the time, near the border with Bengal (I say 'we' although I wasn't yet born). With shortages enough to cripple the region, the town we lived in was blessed with ample supplies of food in support of an industry vital to the war effort. My mother spoke of large groups of famished people trooping past the house every day, desperately begging for a morsel of food, piteously crying out, 'maadh! maadh! maadh!'. We used to cooked rice the old way then, in an excess of water, in a large brass pot. When it was done, the remaining liquid was drained off and discarded; occasionally some of it would be saved for starching our clothes. It was these dregs that these skeletal wretches asked for. The book cites a similar contemporary memory using the Bengali word 'phyan'. My dictionary renders it in standard Hindi as 'maḍi', which is close enough to support my mother's phonetic recollection of a possible Bihari variant of the word.
Mukerjee is the answer to my wish that more Indians take up the challenge of writing accessible and reliable subaltern histories of India. On a personal note, I thank her for bringing into focus my mother's poignant memory of the famine, and for painting a vivid picture of rural poverty that fleshes out imaginings of my father's impoverished childhood and youth.