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‘Three Million’ – A dark chapter in British colonial history is revisited with vivid testimony in BBC radio Series…

‘Three Million’ – A dark chapter in British colonial history is revisited with vivid testimony in BBC radio Series…

Broadcaster Kavita Puri finds sources and people that throw new and important light on the 1943 Bengal Famine…

IT WAS one of the greatest tragedies to have struck the Empire and remains mired in controversy and conjecture but the BBC Radio programme series, ‘Three Million’ aims to state the facts and provide the context.

Few people know about The Bengal Famine of 1943 – especially outside of India. Three million people died from starvation.

Award-winning BBC broadcaster Kavita Puri starts her broadcast with the realisation that so few people know or understand what happened. She goes back to archives, and even talks to people who lived through the crisis or recorded vital testimony themselves.

‘Three Million’ – publicity image

At that time, the area which today includes modern day Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal suffered immeasurably as a cyclone hit crops and the advancing Japanese Army threatened the region. While there was food available in other parts of the British Empire in India – a decision was taken not to alleviate the plight of those coming in from the regions and the Army bought (sometimes, confiscated) food and other essentials to check any Japanese advance after the fall of Burma (Myanmar).

Most Indian historians are quite clear about who was responsible for the horror – Winston Churchill the British prime minister and war leader at the time – in Puri’s programme, self-declared fanboy and one time Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings accepts Churchill’s culpability but this question is not one that Puri tackles essentially.

Puri, whose previous programmes on Britain’s immigrant communities yielded such rich and affecting personal memories (in ‘Partition Stories’ and ‘Three Pounds in my Pocket’ – see links below) does the same here and it has met with widespread praise and critical acclaim.

The radio series – available on BBC Sounds – dropped at the end of February and there are calls for Puri to extend her research and visit Kolkata – she was unable to because she did not get a visa for this series. Much of the content has not been revealed before – and never in such a context.

Puri told why she wanted to make ‘Three Million’ just before it started.

“It’s a bit of history that is really not well known. At least three million people died – one of the largest losses of civilian life on the Allied side – it’s part of British history and our war story,” she told acv.

She accepts it was “almost too late” – but has managed to recover and broadcast as much direct testimony as she can from those who either recount their experiences to paper or were able to do so directly with Puri.

Kavita Puri

“I was able to find eyewitnesses who had very clear memories of that time, and in the archives, uncover testimonies that have never been broadcast before – and piece together the lived experience – but it is of course incomplete. There are so many first-hand accounts that will never be able to be told now.”

Puri’s programme centres the human catastrophe and cost – some survived that time but are not well enough to speak or remember.

“I was luckily able to track down some – including a 97-year-old woman. People can empthaise with a mother who cannot feed her child or a child who wants to help the streams of starving people he is seeing.

“It’s important these stories – even if they are told 80 years on – are part of the historical archive alongside the official record.”

She told acv that despite the grim subject matter, she was able to bring to light things have remained buried or obscured for too long.

“I loved spending times in the archives and could get lost for days. Often, looking for the mention of the famine was like looking for a needle in a haystack as it was rarely catalogued specifically.”

She said the debates and controversies of who was responsible are important but her programme focuses on “how Bengalis dealt and felt about the lack of food at the time,” she explained.

“The Bengal Famine is still rarely talked about more widely. I think it’s important to talk about causes and culpability which has been done for decades but I was focusing on the lived experience which has not really been done before.”

Final programme of five ‘Ghosts’ drops on BBC Radio 4 this Sunday, March 24 at 1.30pm – listen

Three Million –

Partition Voices –

The drama ‘Silence’ which is based on Puri’s work on the above and is produced by Tara Theatre is about to go on a national tour – see dates and venues here (from April 6) –

Three Pounds in my Pocket

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture