Sunetra Sarker - Who Do You Think You Are?

Sunetra's past takes the researchers to Bangladesh to discover her roots...


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Brookside and Casualty actress Sunetra Sarker was born on the 25 June 1973 in Liverpool and we can find her birth registered in the third quarter of 1973 using the birth indexes on TheGenealogist.

Sunetra Sarker in the third quarter of GRO's 1973 index using the birth records on TheGenealogist.

The actress is proud of these Liverpudlian roots and has admitted that when she was growing up in Britain.

"I probably denied being Indian as much as I possibly could."

Sunetra is now keen to research further into the Indian heritage that she had overlooked until recently. Her mother, Bisakha, had often told Sunetra anecdotes about one of their relatives, the respected lawyer and novelist, Dr Naresh Sengupta – or, as he was known to Sunetra's family: Dadu.

Naresh is Sunetra's great-grandfather and, in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? episode, her mother shows her a letter that had been written to Naresh from Rabindranath Tagore, one of India's greatest writers. The letter hints that Tagore and Sunetra's great grandfather had some sort of a disagreement. This raises the question as to what had been Naresh's relationship to the "Shakespeare of India"?

Sunetra also finds out from her mother that Naresh had a younger sister who was put in prison for her political activities. Learning this Sunetra wants to find the truth about her great-grandfather and his sister, Charuprabha. The WDYTYA programme sees Sunetra travel to Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, in West Bengal and brings back memories for Sunetra of childhood trips to India.

At Tagore's family home, it is revealed to Sunetra that her great grandfather and Tagore had been debating what their writing should cover. Sunetra is surprised when she discovers that her great-grandfather Naresh wrote openly about sex, something that would have been considered both scandalous and unconventional at the time, in early 20th century India. He also turns out to have been a strong proponent of women's education and equality.

"I felt quite proud to hear that my great grandfather was a bit daring and going away from the norm, and I recognise a bit of that in me..."

Sunetra's great grandfather, Naresh

Another interesting fact, that Sunetra finds out about her ancestor, was the part that he played in resisting the Colonial powers at the time of the Partition of Bengal. This event took place on the 16th October 1905 when, under Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, the British separated the largely Muslim eastern areas from the largely Hindu western areas in an attempt to quell the anti-colonial nationalism that had been growing in the region. She is told that her great grandfather, Naresh, was immersed in the anti-partition movement and that he translated what is now considered India's national song – the Vande Mataram – into English for the first time. This song became a rallying cry for Indian independence and by translating it, Naresh had made it available to a far wider audience. From then on it was not just Bengali speakers who could sing it and, as the translator, Naresh had been very courageous as the authorities would punish harshly anyone who simply sang the song!

"I knew he was a feminist, and he was very much into women's rights and education, but I didn't realise he was at the forefront of politics as well," says Sunetra.

It is made special for Sunetra when she is given a chance to hear the anthem sung by the students at the Lake School for Girls in Kolkata. Not only was she hearing the piece that her ancestor had made more accessible but the school, Sunetra learns, had been established in 1933 by one of Naresh's daughters: Sushama Sengupta.

From here Sunetra turns her attention to family history research done into Naresh's younger sister Charuprabha. To the actress's surprise, she discovers that Charuprabha had met Mahatma Gandhi and had actually exchanged numerous letters. Suntetra is given the chance to read some of them and they reveal how Gandhi encouraged Charuprabha, as she emerged as a local leader in the fight against British rule of India. It emerges that Charuprabha had been arrested by the authorities three times for her activism and had been jailed for sixteen months. Sunetra's great grand aunt's spirit was not broken and she continued her role as a social activist even after India obtained its independence from Britain in 1947.

"I had a great grand aunt who was so important that she was connected to Gandhi, and a great grandfather, who was her brother and who did so much, and it just makes me feel like I'm such a small piece of this big puzzle."

The family history quest sees Sunetra set off by train to visit Santiniketan, travelling with a distant cousin, to the place where one of Naresh's daughters lived. Sunetra had not visited the house since childhood and it turns out to be a treasure trove of old family papers in which she is excited to find a photo, a letter and a school certificate for Naresh's wife Labanya - her great grandmother. Labanya, whose maiden name had been Bakshi, came from a place called Kanthalia that is now in Bangladesh. Of help to Sunetra's family history research is that the school certificate lists Labanya's father – Sunetra's great, great grandfather – as Bipin Bihari Bakshi. To find out more the actress heads off to Kanthalia in Bangladesh to try and discover more about Labanya and her family.

"What's really striking me is the stark difference to where I was born and where my great grandparents were born. It's just like we're planets away."

At her great grandmother Labanya's primary school, Sunetra learns more about that side of her family. Not only could Labanya's father be thought of as being very liberal, to have sent his daughter to school, but Sunetra also finds that from his title – Bipin Bihari Gupta Bakshi – it indicates that the family were wealthy landowners. It turns out that Sunetra's great great grandfather Bipin was a Zamindar, or the landlord, of Kanthalia village. A land document is found that reveals that Bipin's eldest son was called Jagadish.

Sunetra is able to read a description that had been written by Labanya as a child, describing an idyllic time spent by the river as a child. Labanya left Kanthalia when she married Naresh, but her siblings remained there and after Bipin died, Labanya's brother Jagadish succeeded his father as Zamindar of the village.

One of the oldest people in the village recalls Sunetra's family. Ninety-two-year-old Narayan is able to recall that Labanya's brother, Jagadish Bakshi, had been a handsome man – and a good landlord as well. Narayan takes Sunetra to the ruins of the house that belonged to her Bakshi ancestors. Although it is crumbling and overgrown now and requires her to walk through thick foliage all the while watching out for snakes, Sunetra can imagine its former splendour. Sunetra finds the experience of walking in her family's footsteps overwhelming; it brings back memories of her grandmother who had died in a tragic accident.

"Nobody really talks about that but she was really special to a lot of people. That was just my grandmother, so I never looked beyond her. And I think if she knew that I was walking through her grandfather's house, she would just be...I think that would just make her so happy...and my mum."

Sunetra questions why the house had been abandoned and delving into the history of the time is told about the bad things that happened around the time that Bangladesh became independent. The history of India was that, in 1947, two countries were created with Partition: India and Pakistan. Pakistan itself had been split into two provinces 1000 miles apart and today's Bangladesh was once known as East Pakistan. This was not to last and Sunetra is able to meet Aly Zakar, who had joined the fight for an independent Bangladesh in 1971, to hear about the troubled times. Reading accounts of some of the appalling atrocities that took place - including civilian deaths and widespread rape, Sunetra is shocked.

"I feel quite gobsmacked that I've never heard about this war... I'm a bit nervous to find out about what the effect of that was on the family that I belong to in Kanthalia."

On returning to Kanthalia, a villager tells Sunetra that in 1971 her great great uncle Jagadish was among 39 men taken from the village, tortured and killed. This shocks Sunetra and makes her want to find out what happened to the rest of the family. Speaking about it to a former maid to the women of the Bakshi household, who is called Bashantee, Sunetra learns that the women of the family left for India after the war was over. Sunetra turns out to be the first member of the family ever to have returned to the village since 1971. Sunetra is grateful for all that Bashantee had done for her family and shares a meal with the villagers.

"This whole journey has been full of surprises. I suppose I came blind but curious...I'm quite ashamed to say I was in complete denial of my Bengali roots. I think I was so keen to be a British girl and I still am so proud of that...but now...I've got new parts to my identity, thanks to everything I've learned."

Sources:
Press release from IJPR on behalf of the programme makers
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08gdgkw
BBC Media Images


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