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Indian diarist Sushmita Banerjee 'had no fear'

Soutik Biswas
Delhi correspondent

image copyrightAFP
image captionSushmita Banerjee was the subject of a Bollywood film on her life

"She had no fear. She was a daredevil, " Gopal Banerjee tells me on a telephone line from Calcutta.

We are talking about his sister, Sushmita Banerjee, who was killed in Afghanistan by suspected militants early on Thursday. She was in the limelight briefly about a decade ago after writing a popular memoir - later made into a Bollywood film - about her escape from the Taliban.

Ms Banerjee had married an Afghan moneylender in Calcutta in the mid 1980s. Later, they moved to Afghanistan, where, in the end, her husband ran a garment shop in Paktika province.

Early on Thursday, the 56-year-old diarist met a gruesome end. She was dragged out of her home, shot 25 times, according to one report and her body dumped outside a religious school. Police say they aren't sure why she was killed. They add that her family buried her body - she had apparently converted to Islam - in the village yesterday.

"Yet, we know nothing about what happened," Mr Banerjee says, her brother, tells me.

A diplomat at the Indian embassy in Kabul said that being married to an Afghan she was not typical of the 2000-odd Indians, mostly workers, in Afghanistan. In addition, the diplomat said, she was "living in one of the most dangerous, militant-infested parts of the country."

Which is not what Ms Banerjee told her family in Calcutta when she moved back to Afghanistan this January - 18 years after her "dramatic escape from the clutches of the Taliban", as her memoir, A Kabuliwala's Bengali Wife, claimed.

"She told us she was returning to Afghanistan because the security situation had improved and the Taliban were on the run. She wanted to start her life there again," says Mr Banerjee.

South-eastern Paktika province, which borders Pakistan, has been the target of numerous attacks from insurgents in recent years.

Ms Banerjee hailed from a modest Bengali middle-class family - her deceased father worked in the civil defence department, her mother was a homemaker. Two of her three brothers run small businesses, and she was their only sister. She had dabbled in music and theatre after college and, according to Mr Banerjee, "she would write and act in plays a lot." "That was really her first love," he says.

In her memoirs she wrote that she had met her husband Jaanbaaz Khan in 1986 at a theatre rehearsal in Calcutta. They married three years later.

Return to Afghanistan

Her family had frowned on the relationship, and asked her to leave the house if she continued to go out with Mr Khan. "Had my parents not been so insistent on wrecking our relationship, I might not have left home in a huff and married Jaanbaaz," Ms Banerjee wrote. She also wrote about the harrowing time she spent with her in-laws in Afghanistan, from where she escaped in 1995.

Back in Calcutta, she acted in local folk theatre and launched her own group. In 2003, fame beckoned again when her memoir was made into a Bollywood film. It sank at the box office. Ms Banerjee again slipped into obscurity. The media left her again - until Thursday.

Ms Banerjee had visited Calcutta for a week in July, meeting her family, picking up books for children she said she taught at home. She had told her family that she was happy working as a health worker. She had posted a picture on Facebook of her beaming, snow-flecked face. She had spoken about her plans to write another book. She also promised to return in November.

"This time she seemed to be happy with her husband and her in-laws. Why did she have to die like this?," says Mr Banerjee.