[ Agenda - special issue on Migration and Displacement, July 2008 ; The Friday Times (Lahore), May 10-16, 2013 - Vol. XXV, No. 13 ]
A narrative set around the displacement during the partition of Bengal in 1947, exploring traumas not so explicit, adaptations not so consensual. And imprints of things thought to be lost.
I have crossed the border between the two Bengals multiple times. In February 2013, I took back my maternal uncle Bacchu mama to his ancestral home in East Bengal (now part of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh).He had fled after his matriculation, a little before the 1965 war. When we reached his 2-story modest tin-shed erstwhile home in the Janaki Singho Road of the Kawnia neighbourhood of Barishal town, I saw this mama of mine, trying to touch and feel dusty walls and stairs. He is by far the jolliest person I have seen. This was for the first time I have ever seen his eyes tear up. The story that follows is of his paternal aunt, or pishi.
Having had taken active interest and in some cases active participation in anti-displacement agitations of various sorts and hues, what does ring hollow to my privileged existence is the real trauma of the experience. I know the statistics, the caste break up of the internally displaced, the pain of being transformed from sharecroppers to urban shack dweller – raw stories of loss and displacement. The “on-the-face” ness of the accounts, unfortunately, has a numbing effect. With a populace numbed to the explicit, its sensitivity to things hidden is nearly non-existent. In spite of my association with causes of displacement, in my heart of heart, I empathize but don’t relate. Nobody I have grown up with seemed to have any psychological scar or trauma about it – at least none that they carried around, although I grew up around victims of one of the biggest mass displacements of all times – I am talking about the partition of Bengal in 1947.
When I grew up in Calcutta in the 80s, visits to my maternal grandparents’ place were a weekly feature. They were Bangals to my father’s extended family – we lived in a 30 something strong joint family, firmly rooted in West Bengal, very Ghoti. Bangals are East Bengalis, a people with a culture less-sophisticated, in the minds of the Ghotis. In later years, especially post-1947, the term also came to mean refugees and hence evoked certain discomfiture about the presence of Bangals in West Bengali minds, if not outright animosity. With time, ties- political, amorous and otherwise were built between certain sections of the two communities. I am a child of mixed heritage – with a Ghoti father and a Bangal mother. Much of what I have said, except the last statement are generalizations, but they are useful in terms of broadly demarcating the space within which the narrative is set.
The people of my mother’s extended family had their displacement stories – not really of trauma, but a sense of material loss- the money they couldn’t bring, their land that had been expropriated ever since, the struggle of some families they knew, etc. Calcutta subsumed much of their selves now that they were here and most of them had been here in Calcutta for most of their lives. The character of importance here is my maternal grandmother, my Dida. She was married off to my maternal grandfather, my dadu, who I hear was visibly unwilling about the marriage at that time, if not the match itself – both were teenagers. When she came to Calcutta in tow with her husband, she was still quite young. My mother was born in Calcutta.
They lived in a rented place near Deshopriya Park. There was a certain air of dampness about the place – it connected to the metalled road by a longish and narrow path, not revolting but full of a strange smell of dampness. The path, gritty and dimly lit, was nearly metaphorical of my dida’s connection to her new world – connecting to the mainstream required a certain effort. Inside that house, it was strange and intriguing to me. The lingo was different – they spoke Bangal ( a Bengali dialect) with a Barishal twang ( Barishal was one of the more pupulous districts of East Bengal) called Barishailya. Dida referred to chokh ( eye) as tsokkhu and amader ( our) as amago. I used to pick these up and relate it to my Ghoti joint family, regaling them. Now I don’t think it is hard to imagine that many Bangals didn’t like the fact that other people found simple pronouncements in their dialect amusing and even comical.( Some comedians have used this aspect in Bengali comedy. I am reminded of black clowns with artificial and heightened mannerisms who regaled White audiences).
Dida cooked well and was known for it. What did she want to be known for? My mother related to me how her father was a great lover of letters and sciences. This was somewhat true – sometimes I abhorred going to him because he would not only tell me to do a math problem but also ask me why did I do it that way. He tried to get all his children formally educated – a Bangal signature of the time with imprints still continuing. Markedly different was his attitude towards Dida – I remember numerous instances of “o tumi bozba na” ( You wouldn’t understand that.) On her 50th marriage anniversary, her children got together for a celebration. The couple garlanded each other. She looked happy with her self and her world. “ Togo sara amar ar ki aase” (What else do I have but you people) was her pronouncement. Something happened a few years later that made me question the exhaustive nature of her statement..
Things happened in quick succession after this. The brothers and sisters split. The turn of events resulted in Dida staying with us . Our joint family had ceased to exist too. By now, I was a medical student. Dida was getting worse due to diabetes. So, I spent time with her. I remember her trying to speak ( and miserably failing) our non-Bangal Bengali dialect, to my paternal grandmother. She did try to mingle in, for circumstances demanded that she do. At the time, I thought that she was extraordinarily fortunate. With my new-found sensitivity towards “identities”, I thought, she must have been very happy to speak Bangal until now. She did her groceries at a bazaar full of grocers who were themselves refugees from East Bengal. In fact one bazaar near my home in Chetla is actualled called the Bastuhara bajar ( the homestead loser’s bazar).Her husband’s extended family was essentially her social circle and they all chattered away in Bangal. They ate their fish their way and did their own thing. In spite of being displaced from East Bengal, she had retained her identity, her “self”. Or so I thought.
She suffered a cerebral stroke sometime later. A stroke is tragic and fascinating. It cripples and unmasks. The social beings we are, who care about what words to speak to whom, what state of dress or undress to be where and when, etc- this complex monument of pretense can come crashing down in a stroke. She had been for a day in what would medically be termed “delirium” , characterized by, among other things, speech that may be incoherent to the rest of us. She couldn’t move much and spoke what to us what was nearly gibberish- names we didn’t know, places we hadn’t heard of. To ascertain the stage of cerebral damage, one asks questions like Who are you? Where are we? What is the date? Etc. I was alone with her when I asked this first. Who are you? “Ami Shonkor Guptor bareer meye”.( I am a girl from Shonkor Gupto’s family).I repeated, and she gave the same answer. She couldn’t tell me her name. Shonkor Gupto wasn’t her father but an ancestor who had built their house in Goila village of Barisal, East Bengal. She recovered from the stroke and remembered nothing of the incident. When I asked her later, she replied “Jyotsna Sen” or “Tore mare ziga” (Ask your mother).”Who are you” and “What’s your name” had become one and the same, again. She died sometime later. Another stroke felled her.
Displacement brings trauma with it. And the trauma can be cryptic. It can be hidden. It can be pushed down, sunk deep with the wish that it doesn’t surface. But displacement from home is a strange phenomenon – resurfacing in odd ways. And often an involuntary journey away from home is a journey away from one’s self too. The journey of displacement is hardly linear. It is more like a long arc. In most cases, the arc doesn’t turn back to where it started from. The journey looks unhindered by identities left back. But we can sometimes peer deeper. Nobody called my Dida by the name Jyotsna Sen – she merely signed papers by the name. She had a name by which people called her before her marriage – “Monu”. This name had become hazy after her marriage and journey to her husband’s house and then essentially lost after she migrated to Calcutta. She had been doubly removed from the people, the household, the organic milieu that knew “Monu”. She had 3 children, 4 grandchildren, a husband, a new city. Where was she? And when all this was shorn off, what remained was a teenage girl from East Bengal village – a place she hadn’t been in 60 years, may be the only place where she will be much of herself. Monu of Shankar Gupto’s house.
At this point, I wonder, whether she silently bled all through. Would she have bled similarly if she had choices about her own life or at a bare minimum, if she had an active participation in the decisions that changed her life’s trajectory? The speculative nature of the inferences I draw from her “unmasking” story is not a hindrance to imagine what could have been. A little looking around might show such stories of long-drawn suppressions all around – suppressions we consider facts of life and take for granted. Who knows what she would have wanted at age 15 or at 22. Where was her voice, her own thing in the whole Calcutta saga that followed? The picture perfect 50th anniversary clearly didn’t capture all that she was. Her husband believed she had her due – what more does one need, he thought for her. My mother thought, with a well-intentioned husband that her father was, Dida must be happy. The identity-politics fired lefty in me had thought she hadn’t been displaced enough, given her Bangal milieu! We were all wrong! A part of her lived repressed all along. In the microcosms we inhabit, there are stories of displacement, failed rehabilitation and denial of life choices. It is my suspicion that on learning about the Narmada valley displaced, a part of my Dida’s self would have differed vehemently with the Supreme Court judges Kirpal and Anand*1 – stances which often elude the nuanced mind of the intellectual.
*1 Justice Kirpal and Anand in their majority decision disposed off Narmada Bachao Andolan’s public interest litigation and allowed the resumption of construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and increasing of its height upto EL 90m, resulting in further displacements of many more families, in addition to the thousands already affected.