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 Bengal.
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.