Growing up in Liverpool, Sunetra Sarker had a strong sense of being a Scouser, a British girl. “It’s such a cliché isn’t it, a ferry across the Mersey, and yet it’s so nice,” she says as cameras follow her back to her home city.
And yet Sunetra has another identity too, one she says she probably “denied as much as I possibly could” when growing up, as the daughter of Indian émigrés. Now, the former Casualty star wants to know more about her Bengali heritage, a journey that begins by visiting her parents.
Here, she sees a letter to her great-grandfather, the writer, lawyer and academic, Naresh Chandra Sengupta, penned by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), one of India’s most famous and important writers. It seems to be an apology, but why would Tagore write such a letter?
On a visit to her mother’s old school, Sunetra was treated to a stirring rendition of the Indian nationalist song ‘Vande Mataram’, which her great grandfather helped bring to a wider audience
To learn more, Sunetra heads for Kolkata, once the capital of British India. Here, she learns the two men were debating what literature should and shouldn’t talk about. Naresh, a progressive proto-feminist and nationalist, was a radical writer for his day, and in the 1920s wrote about women’s rights and women’s sexual desire.
He also translated a book called The Abbey of Bliss into English, which dealt with the 18th-century Sannyasi rebellion against the British. The novel features the lyrics to India’s national song, ‘Vande Mataram’.
Translating the text was a dangerous move in the early 20th century, an era when the British even divided Bengal in an effort to spread discord between its Hindu and Muslim populations rather than have them unite against colonialism.
Naresh’s sister, Charuprabha Sengupta, was also a historically important figure. Someone who knew Gandhi well, she was imprisoned three times during India’s long struggle to break free of British rule. “Being connected in any way to Gandhi is really sacred,” marvels Sunetra.
Former freedom fighter Aly Zaker told Sunetra about the history of the Indo-Pakistan War
Going a further generation back, Sunetra wants to know more about the family of her great grandmother, Labanya Bakshi. This involves heading for the village of Kanthalia in what was once East Bengal, but is now Bangladesh. Here, Sunetra’s family was hugely important, local landlords who controlled hundreds of acres of farmland.
So why is the “palatial” house where they once lived now abandoned and ruined? The answer lies in events in 1971, when Bangladesh fought a war of independence against Pakistan (at independence from Britain in 1948, Bangladesh and what’s now Pakistan were part of the same country, despite so much Indian territory lying between the two areas).
Sunetra’s journey came to an end in Kanthalia, where she paid her respects to her ancestors
On 14 May 1971, the Pakistani authorities took away 39 men from Kanthalia, including Sunetra’s great great uncle, Jagadish Bakshi. They were tortured and only one man survived. Fearing for their lives, the rest of the family left the village forever and moved to India. They left behind a shrine that’s still used by villagers.
As Sunetra meets villagers and hears stories of the past, she finds a new connection to her family’s story on the subcontinent. “I’m grateful to call myself Bengali,” she says, “so I think I’ve got new parts to my identity thanks to everything I’ve learnt.”