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Sushmita Banerjee's return to Afghanistan: Suicidal or brave?

"This is like suicide."

That’s what Bengali novelist Samaresh Majumdar told Ananda Bazar Patrika on hearing about the murder of Sushmita Banerjee.

Sushmita Banerjee. AFP

Sushmita Banerjee. AFP

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?”

No one doubts Banerjee’s guts or determination.

She had braved huge obstacles and even beatings in her own family to her preserve her relationship with the Afghan man who became her husband. She had struggled with his very conservative family in Afghanistan when she lived there. For a while she was pretty much locked up at home. She had escaped by burrowing through a hole in the wall, but had been captured by the Taliban. As a runaway bride she was supposed to have been executed, but managed to persuade them that as an Indian they should just send her to the Indian consulate. She was in one word "fearless" said actress Debasree Roy to Ananda Bazar Patrika. Roy was supposed to have featured in a Bengali film based on her life. It even had its mahurat, but never happened. "My only question is why did she go back there?" said Roy to The Telegraph.

After that harrowing escape from the Taliban which she documented in her best-selling book Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou (1998), she had set up home in a flat in Kolkata for the last eighteen years with her father and her husband. She was leading a quiet life here. Neighbours said she spoke little but they often saw her bringing groceries home in a rickshaw. The couple had also drifted away from the city’s Afghan community. Last year her brother-in-law was killed near the Opera cinema in Kolkata. That was the last time when many in the community saw her.

She had presented a copy of her book to her building’s caretaker Raju Saha who told the newspaper he was amazed reading it. "I understood how impossibly brave she was," he said. But some of those neighbours had asked her whether she was not afraid to go back to Afghanistan. She had replied "What’s to be afraid of? Let’s see what happens."

The unthinkable happened. Her body was found outside a madrasa riddled with at least 20 bullets. Afghan police told AFP that a lot of her hair had been ripped out as well. Police chief Daulat Khan Zadran said that from preliminary investigations they think that someone took revenge on her for what she had said and written earlier. The Bengali daily Bartaman writes that Taliban had previously warned that they would give her the punishment she deserved for her outspokenness. The Taliban, however, has not claimed responsibility.

Given that she had already been threatened by the Taliban, was Banerjee brave or foolhardy in returning to Afghanistan this year? "I don’t know why she went back," lamented Tridib Chatterjee, the head of Patrabharati, the Kolkata-based publication house to the daily Bartaman. Swapan Biswas of Bhasha o Sahitya which published her book told The Telegraph it sold 125 copies within the first hour.

Her family has said they were against her going back. But Samit Sengupta, reporter for ABP Ananda television says she wanted to write another book, this time about how Afghanistan was faring under "democracy". Her brother told the channel that she had come back to India for 10 days in July and said the situation was getting better but that women’s lives were still severely circumscribed.

During the Taliban years, Banerjee, while not a trained doctor, used to give women medicines based on her own research and reading. At a time when the medical establishment was in shambles her makeshift pharmacy was a lifeline for many women. That experience helped her land a job this time around as a health care worker. She was documenting the lives of women in Afghanistan.

Now that her own life has come to an end, her family in India is at its wit’s end. Her family told ABP Ananda that they want to bring her body home. But they have no idea how to even go about it. According to them the government has not reached out to them at all yet. But their hope is the Indian government will help bring Banerjee home one last time.

For decades the abiding image of the Kabuliwalah in Bengal has been shaped by the noble and hot-tempered Pathan living far away from home, missing his own daughter, in Rabindranath Tagore’s poignant story that became a famous film in both Bengali and Hindi, one starring Chhabi Biswas, the other Balraj Sahni. Now Sushmita Banerjee, the Kabuliwalah’s Bengali bride, in her death leaves behind a far more shocking image.

Ananda Bazar Patrika writes that Banerjee had written that a woman could, if she wanted, cross the Himalayas. But in Afghanistan (during the Taliban years) she could not even cross her threshold.

Banerjee showed through her life that she could. “She was really brave,” Ujjwal Chatterjee, the director of Escape from Taliban, based on her life, told the media. "Didi showed us how a Bengali girl could stand up against the Taliban’s fatwa."

That she died in that attempt should not diminish the fierceness of that courage.

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