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Next time, electing a sarkar from Great Nicobar

[ Daily News and Analysis, 29 Apr 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 22 May 2014 ; Millenium Post, 2 May 2014 ; Echo of India, 7 May 2014]

At the very outset, I should make my position on certain things very clear. I believe that there are many, many ways of being human – none of them being ‘better’ or ‘worse’, ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’, ‘forward’ or ‘backward’ than others. There is no rank order of ‘civilizations’, cultures, millenia and the like. For that matter, I am not sure what ‘civilization’ means, unless you define it by a set of arbitrary parameters and ascribe those parameters some kind of inherently positive value, just because you fancy them. This line of thought may be particularly irritating to those who, after their unfortunate birth in brown-land, were born-again when exposed to White people’s worldviews. But the irritation of such dwijas (twice born) is irrelevant. They would have been altogether irrelevant if a deep democracy were able to function in the subcontinent. I hope such a time comes soon, before the dwijas are able to stamp out all diversity and cultural rootedness from this world. I hope they are soon kicked off the centre-stage that they have occupied for too long, by keeping the people out by sheer power. Till such time, before the story of the hunt is rewritten and the lions still lurk, some will continue to make hay. But let me get back to the many many ways to being human.

Now that we have the clap-trap about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ humans out of the way, let me come to the ongoing elections to the Indian Union parliament. Using the principle of one-man one-vote, this exercise seeks to present an opportunity to the people to determine and influence the nature of the power that will rule over them. But that is not all. This exercise also relegitimizes (kind of like license renewal) the structure and apparatus that imposes itself on the people. Thus power structures seek legitimacy by offering a pre-determined amount of decision-making power. It does not give all powers to the people. For example, the people who are supposedly the only sovereign in this schema cannot alter the ‘basic structure’ of the Indian Union constitution, even when fundamental rights of the individual are protected.

The crucial part of such schemes is that they are all-pervasive. The intense focus of resources and energy by modern nation-states on maintaining and defining territorial limits is not accidental. Within that zone, it is supreme. Which is precisely why territories where such monarchic supremacy is not established are sources of unending paranoia for the powers-to-be. The smokescreen of people’s welfare is used to unleash the non-pretentious forces of a nation-state – money and military. In places where people don’t live, powers dangle the notion of ‘strategic importance’.

We are born from our mother’s womb. We are born where our mother lay pregnant with us. When we are born, we are as human anyone else. This is before there is consciousness of the state, constitution, Gandhi, Nehru, tricolor, New Delhi, etc. Is it a pre-condition of being human that these notions have to be built up within our heads for an individual to be considered fully human? Clearly not. Our bloodlines and human consciousness predates all flags and constitutions and gods willing, will outlive them too. So one has a right to be fully human and not be impinged upon, counted, exercised power upon, demanded loyalty from by institutions like the nation. One has a right to exist in the land one was born upon, to mingle in the society into which one is born or welcomed, live a glorious life among one’s kins and so on. Institutions that place themselves as mediators of these rights, without being called to mediate, are inhuman and anti-social in a very fundamental sense. They may well be legal, depending on how many guns back up the self-imposed mediator. Legality is different from justness– only the people can create the latter. No paper document written in their name can.

Whether one votes or not votes or boycotts it, all of these positions are vis-à-vis the voting process and the state that sponsors it. The all pervasiveness of such schemes means that you will be counted, not matter what – you will be classified, even if you don’t belong. Lack of ‘consciousness’ is not an option and in any case, irrelevant. Institutions that intensively survey uninhabited islands, wrap the remains of the dead in distinct flags, ‘teach’ loyalty through school syllabi do face a problem when they face people who regard the state as alien. Some of the indigenous peoples of Andaman and Nicobar Islands like the Shompen are such aliens. But they are ‘Indian’ citizens, irrespective. Are they proud of Gandhi? Do they respect the tricolour? Do they have a stake in Siachen and Sir Creek, given what happens there is done in their name too? Do they believe in ‘unity in diversity – given that their numbers have sharply dwindled ever since they were ‘claimed’ as ‘Indians’? It is from the perspective of the Shompen people of the Great Nicobar island that the all pervasive state starts looking not so pervasive – a hint that there is an outside, even when high resolution maps and detailed anthropological surveys have been done. This ‘outside’ consciousness is an extremely dangerous thing. Hence, when the Shompen people voted in Indian Union elections for the first time, whatever that act means, there was a sigh of relief at the deepest heart of the state. A portal to an outside, however small, was technically sealed. There is an outside and there will always be an outside. It comes with every child who is born. Hence there is a persistent and dangerous glimmer. To live without certain indoctrinations makes a dynamite of a people, even if they don’t ‘know’ it. The distance from birth-rights to full-citizenship is a journey that requires surrender of rights, without consent or with indoctrination that there is no outside.

I remember a 4-panel cartoon. At first, a bear stands in a jungle. Then some trees are cleared, encroachers arrive. The bear looks on. Finally, everything is ‘clean’ and someone is taken aback that there is a bear in the midst of ‘civilization’ and asks where it came from. The bear was always there. I am sure they created a ‘sanctuary’ for the bear thereafter. May be it will start speaking Hindi and English and straighten up its spine when the band plays Jana-Gana-Mana. With enough ‘aspiration’, it might go on to sing ‘the world will live as one’. There wont be any bears left any more. Such is progress in a world without outsides.

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Filed under Army / police, Democracy, Foundational myths, History, Home, Identity, India, Nation, Polity, Power, Rights

Nakbas near home – Their Palestines, Our Palestines

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 May 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 26 June 2013 ]

Fleeing from one’s homeland after being pushed out from there was a phenomenon that bound people across the subcontinent in 1947. It was also a time of unbinding as millions were frantically trying to prevents knots from untying – knots that had taken generations to build, knots out of which selfhoods emerged and thrived. That anxious and tragic trudge, leaving behind the land of ancestors, also happened to the west of the subcontinent, in Palestine. For Palestinians, 15 May is not ordinary day either. It remembered as Nakba Day or the ‘day of catastrophe’. More than half a million Palestinians fled their lands in the wake of the 1948 war – never to be able to return. They hold on to keys, real and symbolic, asserting their right to return to their lands, adding flesh to ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’. The leaving behind the land of ancestors is something subcontinentals know too well.

Palestine has become a codeword for injustice to a people who had to flee their homes unwillingly. There very few large university campuses in the West where some form of Palestine solidarity activism does not exist. The present author has actually suffered some persecutions due to his involvement with such initiatives at one point. This also spills over to general activism against militarism and occupation – activist forces, however marginal, have a supportive stance on Palestine. Such support has almost become a sine qua non for being considered serious and passionate about human rights, in general.

Some years ago, I was chatting with a friend who is very passionate about Palestinian rights, their denied statehood and most importantly, their right to return to their ancestral homes in Palestine from their diasporic network, including many in refugee colonies.  He is a Bengali baidya born and brought up in the C.R.Park locality of New Delhi. The discussion turned to ancestral origins and he revealed that they were from Dhaka. I asked him, so what about your right to return? He looked perplexed. What do you mean – he asked? I said, I am guessing your East Bengali family, like most others, did not flee Dhaka voluntarily, and like Palestinians, their ancestral abode, even if razed or occupied, is as sacred to them, and most importantly, they did not have consent in the dispensation that made them refugees. And let the Rs.20000/sq.ft. property values of CR Park not make us forget the earlier name of this ‘posh’ locality – East Pakistan Displaced Persons(EPDR) Colony. Most ‘EPDP’ colonies are not ‘posh’ – especially those inhabited by people from backward castes. Such colonies, authorized and unauthorized, have been the site of state repression including large scale massacre, as in Marichjhhapi in 1979. Yes, there are differences from Palestine, but what prevents anyone from seeing the many similarities?

Palestine is not the site of the world’s largest or longest displacement. But what determines its pre-eminent position in the ‘global’ mindscape? Imperialism, that hollowed out word, also determines the pecking order of resistances, of solidarity causes, inside our heads. If the Bengali Baidya cared only about Bengal and  nothing about Palestine, that looking away from the priority list of the minority world into the majority world, would be termed ‘insular’ and ‘inward’ looking. That there is no such slur for those who don’t care about the displaced in the subcontinent is but a testimony to the skewed nature of our sensitibilities.

People who question such fundamental things as the nation-states in the subcontinent do not call for the right to return of Muslims who fled Ambala and Kolkata, or Hindus who fled and continue to flee East Bengal. What do these blind-spots reveal? What is so natural about the displacement from Ambala to Multan that it merits no call for justice and ‘right to return’? Surely, constitutional  ‘nationality’ cannot be a reason to suspend humanity and consider the myriad ‘right to return’s in our subcontinent as absurd.

There may be something else at play. It is harder to confront one’s immediate surround. We know them – the university rebel who is a docile son at home, the fire-eating caste-hating savarna who predictably marries someone else from a similar caste, and many others. Distant cause-mongering helps us to get away from these clearly disturbing mismatches between rhetoric and action, but at the same time preserves the semblance of an ethical self, even a pedestal.

One may ask, why not this and that?  But if ‘activism’ is to be taken seriously, tangible action is to be taken seriously, then there is a certain problem in having this cafeteria choice of causes.  Not all causes stand a crucial test – whether one is directly affected by the consequences of one’s actions in the furtherance of a cause. It matters.

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Filed under Bengal, History, Home, Identity, Memory, Nation, Pakistan, Partition, Scars

This land is my land / Decoding the Assam riots / Loss of familiarity

[ The Friday Times (Lahore) -August 03-09, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 25 ; Daily News and Analysis (Mumbai) 2 Aug 2012 ; Millenium Post (Delhi) 4 Aug 2012 ; The Kashmir Monitor (Srinagar)  4 Aug 2012 ; Countercurrents 2 Aug 2012 ]

The Assam state of the Indian Union has seen violence flare up suddenly from July 6th.  With more than 40 people reported dead and upwards on one and a half lakh displaced in a week, the Kokrajhar riots between Bodos and Muslims have again brought in focus certain issues that are not limited to Kokrajhar district, or for that matter to Assam. There will be the usual game of getting as much mileage from the dead and the displaced. There will be a lot of talk Assam becoming another Bangladesh or even Pakistan, with careless fear mongering thrown in for good measure. There will be others, who will sell the absurd fiction that almost no illegal migrants from the Republic of Bangladesh exist in Assam. To go beyond this, let me focus on two contexts – regional and global.

If one looks at a special kind of map of the world, the type where different population densities are marked with different colours, something sticks out very starkly. The part of the world with one of the biggest continuous stretches of the highest range population density is Bengal – East and West. Now incompletely split along religious lines, the Bengals are veritable pressure cookers – with millions of desperately poor people looking to out-migrate to any area with slightly better opportunities. At this point, it is important to realize that when ethno-religious communities are awarded a ‘home-land’, be it a province or a country, a process of myth-making starts from that time onwards, which aims to create a make-believe idea that such a formation was always destined to be. In the minds of later generations, this solidifies into a concept as if this demarcated territory always existed, with vaguely the same borders, with vaguely the same culture and demography. This process is both creative and destructive. It is creative in the sense that it gives the ethnic-mentality a certain ‘timeless’ territorial reality that is often exclusive. The destruction often lies in the twin denial of the past of the region and also the rights of those who are neither glorious, nor numerous. With this in mind, let us come to Assam.

To take the issue head on, the elephant in the room is the Muslim, specifically the ‘Bengali’-speaking Muslim in Assam. I saw ‘Bengali’ in quotes, as many of the ‘Bengali’ speakers in Assam are more correctly described as Sylhoti speakers. And Sylhet is an important part of the story. Today’s Assam state with its Axomia core and a few other communities is the successor to the much larger province of yore, which included the whole district of Sylhet, much of which is now in the Republic of Bangladesh. Sylhet has for a long time represented something of a frontier zone between Bengal and Assam. And most Sylhetis are Muslims. So when Sylhet was a part of the province of Assam before partition, the idea of Assam was very different. In the Assam legislature, most Muslim members were elected from Sylhet. In short, they were an important contending bloc to power. In fact, before partition, the premier of Assam for much of the time was Mohammad Sadullah, a Brahmaputra valley Muslim, who was solidly supported by the Sylheti Muslim legislators, among others. Though a Muslim leaguer, he stayed back in Assam after partition. Unknown to many, the Assam province, like Bengal and Punjab, was also partitioned in 1947 – the only one to be partitioned on the basis of a referendum (held to determine the fate of the Muslim majority Sylhet district). The largely non-Muslim Congressites is Assam in fact did not even campaign seriously for the referendum, for they were only too happy to see Sylhet go, so that they could have a complete grip over the legislature minus the Sylheti Muslim threat to power. The Sylhetis are but reluctant Bengalis, but that is another story. What I want to impress here is that the origin of the feeling of being slowly outnumbered and besieged also has a certain past. This feeling never died out. The post-partition demographic shift of Assam has again started sliding back, with an increasing proportion of the populace now being Muslims. Whether it is differential fecundity rates or Bengali-speaking migrants from the Republic of Bangladesh, or a combination of both, the net effect is a slow growth in this siege mentality. It is important to note that really are many illegal settlers from the Republic of Bangladesh. This has often led to accusation leveled against the Congress party that it shields the illegal migrants by creating captive vote-banks out of their insecurity. This may be partially true, given its reluctance to fulfill the terms of Assam accord that was signed to end the Assam agitation of the 1980s. Among other issues, it sought to identify illegal settlers and take legal action. Given that onus is on an accuser to prove that someone is not a citizen of the Indian Union, rather than the onus being on a person to prove whether one is a citizen of the Indian Union, the illegal settler identification process has been a gigantic failure. So the issues remain, the tempers remain, so does the politicking and the volatility that could flare into violence, as it has done now.

Now let us come back to the population bomb that is Bengal. If it appears from the story till now that this is some Muslim immigration issue, one will be mistaken. To the east and north-east of Bengal are territories that have been inhabited by tribes for centuries. Due to the post-partition influx of refugees, some of these zones have essentially become Bengali-Hindu majority homelands. One prominent example is Tripura. This tribal majority kingdom, inhabited by many tribal groups, most notably the Riyangs, is now a Bengali-Hindu majority state. There is the same kind of tribal son of the soil versus settler Bengali conflict as in Assam with a crucial difference. Here the game is over with the Bengalis being the clear victors. The future of the tribal groups possibly lies in tenacious identity-preservation in ‘Bantustans’ called autonomous councils or slow cultural assimilation into the Bengali ‘mainstream’. Sixty years can be long or short, depending on who you are.

A similarly sad saga is unfolding in the Republic of Bangladesh where the government in its immense wisdom settled large groups of desperately poor landless Muslim Bengalis in the hill tracts of Chittagong. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, one of those ‘anomalies’ of the Radcliffe line, had a solid tribal-Buddhist majority, all through the Pakistan period. The large group of tribes, the Chakmas being the foremost, have a distinctive culture, lifestyle and religion, quite different from the Muslim Bengali settlers. After active state supported migration schemes, now the Chittagong Hill Tracts are Bengali Muslim majority, except on paper. The army is stationed there largely to protect settler colonies as they expand. Clashes between the indigenous tribes and the settlers are common, with the military backing the settlers to hilt. Human rights violations of the worst kind, including killings, rapes, village-burnings and forced conversions, have happened, aided and abetted by the state machinery. The indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hill tracts are fighting a losing game. Like Assam, here there has been an accord in response to insurgency by the tribes. The accord remains unimplemented. The state possibly believes that the indigenous tribes will take to Sheikh Mujib’s heartless advice to them in 1972, ‘to become Bengalis’.

All of this is happening in a global context, where the questions of ‘special’ indigenous rights are being raised. Some of it takes the form of racial politics of the majority as in certain European nations. There are the interesting cases of ‘cosmopolitan’ cities like Mumbai and Karachi – with sons-of-the-soil in and out of power respectively, but both with a strong undercurrent for rights of the local. It is easy to label these as ‘xenophobic’ or ‘prejudiced’, especially in the ‘interconnected world of the 21st century’ or whatever global consumer culture calls such dissidents now. Yes, this too is dissidence and of a primal variety that dare not tell its name in these times when the contours of what is dissident and what is sociopathy have lost their human connection, to become ‘discourse’ categories. I am not talking of ‘nationalism’ but a variety of ‘ethnocentrism’ which has known and lived in a territorial space and now finds too many ‘outsiders’ in that space, playing by different rules, making their ‘own area’ less recognizable, all too sudden. The reaction to this loss of familiarity and challenge to position from ‘outside’ groups constitutes a strain that cannot be shouted down for its supposed political incorrectness. While many may think that it is inter-connected-ness that feeds life, and that there are no ‘pure’ indigenous, the rate of such change is crucial. When some clans of Kanauji Brahmin migrants to Bengal became Bengalis no one knows, but now they are undeniably Bengali. At the same time, modern transportation now enables mass movements in short periods of time that was unthinkable earlier. Such migrant communities change local demography all too quickly and by quick I mean decades. Often, such migrations happen in spurts and successive waves, where kinship ties are crucial. Such settlers have more in common with co-settlers than the indigenous. Often the settlers have a perilous existence, partly due to the animosity of the indigenous. This leads to huddling with knowns rather than huddling with unknowns. Thus this new ghettoisation, both geographical and psychological, inhibits the kind of integrative processes that in the past led to the formation of new, syncretic communities.

The notion of a legally uniform country, where anyone is free to settle anywhere else, is geared towards the rights of the individual, with scant heed to the rights of a community to hold on to what it has always known to be its ‘own’. The modern nation-state forces such communities into playing by the rules of atomization, for the only entity that the state seriously recognizes is the individual. And in a flat legal terrain, the rights of the citizen can be used against rights of a community, not even his own. Bengal, Assam, Burma – have hard cartographic borders and soft physical borders. The nation state aspires to a uniformly hard border, often working against the reality of culture, ethnicity and terrain. In the specifically charged context of demographic change, it is useful to realize that no one comes to live a precarious life in an unknown place with few friends and many enemies to embark on a 200 year plan to effect demographic change. People simply live their lives. However, from the vantage of the indigenous, this sudden settlement is a change and a concern, a concern that animates itself as demographic projections. In the absence of any sanctioned way of controlling the speed of change or the nature of influx, ethno-religious theories of ‘being besieged’ provide a way to gain a wider moral sanction for extra-legal intervention. Our porous subcontinental realities require an approach that devolves power and rights that would protect against such massive change. Just like the elite quarters of the cosmopolitan city, everyone has a right to preserve what is dear to them, before it becomes dear to someone else. If this sounds like a scheme to rationalize the tyranny of a communitarian xenophobia, that is possibly because many of us have loss the sense of intimate belonging to a community. Living creatively with differences assumes a certain element of consent between the communities. That consent is important. Fear of total change, loss of self-identity and self-interest hinders consent. Metropolitan diktats of assimilation deny communities that dignity. Communities assimilate in their own way. Speed is a new factor that needs to be dealt creatively. Lack of a serious move towards according communities to determine the future of their locale and futures would end communities as we know them.

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Filed under Bengal, Class, Community, Foundational myths, History, Home, Identity, Memory, Partition, Power, Religion, Rights, Terror

Long way from home – silent shuffles towards not sticking out

[ 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.

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Filed under Bengal, Home, Identity, Kolkata, Language, Memory, Partition, Scars