Partition Tales (silent)

I checked the date….only a
few months since they had shifted from Mymensingh in Bangladesh to
grandmother was pregnant with my mother….ailing with an infected appendix….She could not make the crossover to
India — passing away in Rangpur, on the Indo-Bangladesh border when my
mother was just about 10 months old…….That was 1948…..

Who knows how many such diaries – veritable treasures all of them – may be floating around. The dead tell no tales, it is the job of the new generation to ferret out the stories behind all the (inevitable) dislocations and humanize the events beyond TNT and all the one-upmanship political crap.

The new generation is reputed to be shallow and self-centered. Not really, just the youth are puzzled by us oldie-foggies and our particular fights and resentments. They are also not too impressed by ideology and propaganda dressed up as history. They want to know the truth for themselves. Sometimes they see the truth openly laid out while the (willfully blind) oldies remain content by farting at the general direction of their (imagined) enemies.

This bangal girl sure has lots of initiative and spunk. We are thankful (and grateful), but we still hope that she goes the last mile to see the diary published. It will be a sensation for sure!!! 
Recently, I went on a whirlwind trip to see my ailing parents. Once
there, I heard that my aunt, who lives alone since my uncle passed away,
is unwell too. I dropped by to see her with some sundry stuff – and
since I cannot keep my brain from working overtime – imagined myself a
grown-up Little Red Riding Hood out to do some good.


Anyway. Once there, we talked about old things. The new things were
more attractive though — a pair of kittens managed to make themselves
comfortable on her porch sofa — including their mother. I also
remembered to check the electrical main switch down by her staircase –
it had been sputtering during the rains, and she had had to call for
help to put it right.

Checking done, I thought of looking over the heap of old books in
there. And what should I find, but an old rusty iron suitcase that
belonged to my grandfather! I wasn’t allowed to touch it as a kid — for
they feared my mischief-making prowess. However, I knew it housed a
diary apart from numerous other papers – and the diary had priceless
details about his life — his concerns over finances, his daughters’
education, new-fangled medical theories and drugs…. I had — without
anyone’s knowledge — already read parts of the diary when in high school
— under the pretext of cleaning the mess that was her staircase.

Now, of course, my aunt readily handed the suitcase over to me. She
does not see very well, and rued that I didn’t have enough time to read
the letters aloud to her.

Nevertheless, I did open a letter and read it aloud. It was a
resignation letter. My grandfather was quitting his school in
Lalmonihaat (now in Bangladesh) owing to some personal tragedies and
other factors. He had already worked in the school for 28 years, and was
requesting for 4 months’ bonus as a full and final settlement.

I checked the date — It was dated 1948. I remembered, and my aunt
confirmed that it was the year of her mother’s death. It had been only a
few months since they had shifted from Mymensingh in Bangladesh to
Calcutta owing to communal tensions during India’s bloody partition. My
grandmother was pregnant with my mother before that, and was already
ailing with an infected appendix. She could not make the crossover to
India — passing away in Rangpur, on the Indo-Bangladesh border when my
mother was just about 10 months old. That was 1948.

What must have been my grandfather’s thoughts, with four young
children, and none to advise or confer on the next course of action? My
grandfather was the oldest amongst his siblings — and everyone looked up
to him for guidance. What would this man have endured during those
crucial months when survival was at stake?

As I thought these over, I fingered a newspaper cut-out beneath the
letter. As I opened it — I saw a map of undivided Bengal plotted and
marked according to communal lines. Areas with a majority of Hindus were
shaded black. These were the western and northern parts of Bengal.
Those with a Muslim majority were shaded grey — and a few areas were
checquered indicating a rapidly increasing Muslim population.

A strange sensation overwhelmed me as I stared at that map. I could
feel the turmoil that my grandfather had possibly felt as he had cut it
out of the newspaper after careful study. Perhaps he had thought that
someone would have the time to reflect on it in better times.

And a reflection it is — of us and the institutionalised brainwashing
that characterises our education and nationalist propaganda. I have
studied in one of the best schools and colleges in my country. My
country is India and I have never felt myself as anything beyond an
Indian. I know all that is told to us about our freedom struggle. I also
know about the blood-bath that marked the partition of India. I knew it
all from the comfortable nonchalance of a third-person perspective.
Nothing in life prepared me to face the plight that marked the life of
my grandfather — a generation that lived and breathed in an undivided

My grandfather was a professor of Sanskrit. He had studied at a
Sanskrit school in Mulajor on the western (now Indian) side of undivided
Bengal. From what I heard from my mother and aunts, he was highly
energetic, and pursued several interests that included reading, music,
playing at cards and cricket. He had many friends in Calcutta, and was
no doubt, a very sociable and resourceful man. He was a favourite with
his mother-in-law; the friendship lasted till the end — and the two
passed away in quick succession, within a span of a single day.

Had he lived today, my grandfather would probably not have understood
the pejorative undertones we associate with a theocratic Bangladesh. He
would have probably shaken his head at the dogma fed to our
impressionable minds about India being surrounded with enemy states.

On another note, it is possible that he would have understood every
bit of this. After all, it is but a basic tenet of statecraft to
organise and motivate a gullible public by giving them a collective
dream to nurture and protect. The flip side of this mass movement is of
course the extremism that blighted the hopes of millions as Hindu and
Muslim blood flowed on the streets of India.

What would have been the experiences of a man forced to leave the
country of his birth and seek employment in a land that suddenly
regarded him “foreign”? It would have been the early days of the slang
“Bangal” attributed to those who migrated from Bangladesh — and largely
held responsible for over-populating West Bengal and skewing
its economy. It doesn’t mean much to us today — descendants of “Bangals”
who brought about a social reformation in Bengal through their modern
outlook and work culture. Necessity forced “Bangal” women to step out of
their homes and earn a living — and I thank them for that.

Stories such as theirs have been conveniently tucked within the
cracks of history. It is not surprising, though, because  what
distinguishes the likes of my grandfather is their inability to turn
blind in the face of a collective tomfoolery. In his having to leave the
land of his birth resides the sordid story of our national leaders —
who sought to further personal ambitions by feeding off the mass
hysteria generated by India’s independence.

I’m not writing this simply to indict our leaders on an issue
analysed and talked about ad nauseam. There are enough contemporary
issues to do that. I’m writing this as part of my self-appraisal — as I
continue to live my life and evaluate the factors that shaped me. My
grandfather’s suitcase gives me that window through which I can
contextualize and understand the thoughts and motivations of scores of
people — relatives — that I hardly knew and understood less.

I cannot help wonder how life would have been had the fell swoop of
partition not puckered and tainted the seams of thought that bind me to
the past.





Brown Pundits