By Aritry Das
“Don’t forget to take the money for boat fare,” my paternal grandmother, who was eighty, told me, holding my hand in her cool, wrinkled, and small palm. We lived in the outskirts of North Kolkata, and there was no river for me to cross. The apartment where I lived with my parents was a ten-minute walking distance. But my grandmother, whom I dearly called Thakun–a spin on ‘Thakuma’–the traditional Bengali address for grandmother, was not really present with me in that old, musty room where she had spent close to forty years. In her mind, which was ailing from dementia, she had traveled back to Barishal–a district in present-day Bangladesh–a land with rivers and creeks as its veins. At that moment, she did not know who I was anymore; her near-blindness had wiped off my face too. I was perhaps a friend or a relative in her time-warped consciousness, and she just wanted to make sure I had enough money to cross the river.
That day I realised, even though Thakun dedicated a major part of her life to social and political work in West Bengal, she never really stopped missing home. And her home was in a land she was violently uprooted from, like millions of refugees, in the fateful year of 1947 when India gained its independence from the British at the cost of splitting its body in three.
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The Hindu refugees who poured into West Bengal in waves after partition, usually did not bring anything with them. As they lost their home, sense of identity, language, property, and communities, they landed in a place ridden with poverty, hunger, and uncertainty. The raw experience of loss did not have a scope to heal as most refugees in overflowing camps, and later congested ghetto-like colonies in Kolkata and its suburbs, struggled to get by. The youth slowly changed their tongue to the standard dialect of Bengali spoken in Kolkata and only their grandparents carried on the remnants of the dialect from their native districts. The Bengali dialects across different districts in East Bengal varied so much at the time that resettlers could be easily identified by how they spoke.
The ideas of citizenship and nationalism were dissociated in the imagination of the East Bengal refugees. For decades after partition, the usual conversation starter between two ‘Bangals’ (as those from East Bengal were called, as opposed to ‘Ghotis’ or those native to West Bengal), would involve asking one another, “Apnar desh kothay (where is your country)?” The question invariably meant to ask where one’s native place in East Bengal was. Even though they became citizens of India, for my grandfather and grandmother, their ‘desh’, which literally means country, remained Barishal.
My grandmother, Kamala Roy, was born in Harinfulia village in Barishal. As a fierce young girl, she was engaged in social work in the village. A core member of the Women’s Self Defense Committee in Barishal, she volunteered for relief work during the 1943 Bengal famine, caused by the British administration’s hoarding of food grains for soldiers. Her work led to the Communist Party enrolling her as a member in 1944 despite her being younger than the party’s age limit. The famine was perhaps the first big event to shape her goal of working for the larger good of the society. Throughout the twenty years I had her company, as my protector and nurturer, she would reminisce about the famine and the utter helplessness of skeletal people crying for fyan (the starch water that remains after cooking rice).
In 1945, She married my grandfather Sushil Das from Barishal’s Dhamura village and became Kamala Das, a name still remembered in the left-affiliated women’s organisation, Paschim Banga Mahila Samitee. After her marriage, as Thakun worked with the Women’s Self Defense Committee for the protection and alleviation of women during the tumultuous years in the wake of the Second World War, her husband strived to build a school in Dhamura. A lifelong communist, my grandfather staunchly believed in the transformative power of education. Both of them worked side by side as comrades in arms.
1947. My grandfather, whom I called Dadai, was from a middle-class family. Even though he built the first primary school in Dhamura, he could not teach there for long. Under financial pressure, he took up a job at the Barishal Collectorate. However, he soon lost the job as the British administration got tipped off about his links with the Communist Party. But at last, he could return to his school and work tirelessly as the headmaster to upgrade it to secondary level. Meanwhile, India was partitioned following Radcliffe’s line and East Pakistan was formed with two-thirds of undivided Bengal’s population.
The communal flare-up post Partition started to soak Bengal’s earth with the blood of its children. At the same time, the Pakistan government started cracking down on communists. In 1948, anticipating communal violence reaching Barishal, my grandmother left for Kolkata with her six-month-old daughter to stay with some relatives. At the time, my grandfather was busy in getting government approval for secondary studies at his school, in which he eventually succeeded. As a proud headmaster, Dadai thought it was time to bring back his wife and daughter home. So, he left for Kolkata.
As soon as Dadai landed in Kolkata, with nothing but a few pairs of clothing and just enough money to travel back, he got a message from his village that the Ansar force and police were looking for him. Being a Hindu and a communist, it was no longer safe for him to return. He was suddenly stranded in Kolkata with his wife and daughter, and had nowhere to go. The relatives they were staying with were also financially distressed and moved out of Kolkata. My grandmother had not prepared for this eventuality and had not even brought a single piece of jewellery or photograph with her. In a matter of a few days, my grandparents were rendered penniless and homeless. Till his last breath, my grandfather, who could not ever return to his village, would not forget his house, his village, and the school he built with his blood and sweat.
While my grandparents’ land and property were sold off by one of their relatives for pennies to prosperous Muslims in the area, the school headmaster’s post was assumed by Arsad Miyan, who was influential in Dhamura. Miyan’s loyalists in the village also sent warnings to Dadai to not return.
Even though misfortune had struck them hard, my grandparents did not lose hope. They found a room in the Muraripukur Baganbari, a house that was famous for being a meeting and training spot for revolutionary freedom fighters. But that was temporary as railway stations, abandoned factories, and footpaths filled up with more and more refugees. Few years later, they moved to another house in Bagmari, which was abandoned by a Muslim family during the partition, and they could only find one room there as well. While Dadai found government employment, Thakun did odd jobs such as distributing magazines. At the same time, both were actively working for the Communist Party in West Bengal.
In the meantime, my father, uncle, and younger aunt were born. They lived in terrifying conditions in the dilapidated house in Bagmari. Six people in one room. Whenever it rained, it would flood and sewer water would enter the house, my eldest aunt rued as she recounted their lives.
As they moved around occupied houses, they lived a life hitherto unprecedented. It was only in 1961 that my grandparents loaned some money to build a two-room house, almost a shanty, at Bengharia, in the outskirts of Kolkata. My father and his three siblings used to study circling a single kerosene lamp and sometimes there would only be rotis for supper, they would often reminisce, still unable to believe the times they went through.
Thakun joined a primary school as a teacher in Belgharia while working full time with the party, taking care of the household, and raising four children. She had also completed her graduation in Kolkata while wearing these many hats. My eldest aunt sat for her final school examination while her mother appeared for her Bachelor’s exams. As education was always the first priority for my grandparents, they made sure their children were well-educated even if they lived in destitution. My grandparents were deeply entrenched in community life and helped build another school in Belgharia.
Till she nearly lost her eyesight at the end of her life, Thakun made sure the past was remembered. She would invite all family members and relatives on the occasions of my great-grandparents’ death anniversaries and recount stories of the past, their life in Barishal and all that was lost and rebuilt.
“We are chhinnamul (rootless),” Thakun sometimes said; I think that is why it made more sense for them to forge new roots, which helped them create new identities, while deep in their hearts, the ‘desh’ remained across the border.
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About the authors
Aritry Das is a writer, winner of our short story competition.
The author of this essay contributed to our Essay Writing Contest, the theme for which was Partition. Theirs was one of the winning entries, selected by Aanchal Malhotra, author of ‘Remnants of a Separation’.