By Asad Latif
If nations are imagined (but not therefore imaginary) communities, Bengal is a nation. The reality of nationhood rests on the quality of the imagination that goes into it.
Calcutta, where I was born in 1957, provided me with a cartographic point of entry into the imagined geography of Bengal. My Bengal began with West Bengal, within which lay a rough face-to-face society rich in visual and oral provenance. The everyday homeliness of rural thatched mud huts were reflected in the high gabled roofs which contoured the spiritual skyline of Dakshineswar. Minstrel bauls walked through the soul, half-starved on their way to seeking salvation for everyone. The very soil of Bengal broke out in bhatiali song. The chau dancers of Purulia dramatised Hindu epics in a language emotively accessible to all. The energy of santhali dances invoked the performative agency of a tribal culture that refused to let pre-industrial and pre-state time lapse into contemporary irrelevance.
Agricultural West Bengal encompassed the legacy of a land whose grasp was much longer and larger than the social circumference of middle-class life in Calcutta. In my own ancestral village in Hooghly district, a short train journey from Howrah station, boys my age could climb trees and run barefoot and naked across scorching soil, outpacing the shy urbanite in me. Young women, taught to avoid the roving gaze of male strangers, lowered their eyes to the ground in modest contemplation when men passed by. Farmers could bend unbearingly long to till the land, standing upright for only a few minutes before they resumed their toil. No one spoke English. No one needed to. No one needed me. I needed them.
To the west of West Bengal lay the rest of India. The “rest of the Indians” were decipherable. In Bihar and Odisha, once a part of Bengal Presidency, rump Bengal lived on in the linguistic and cultural traces of the colonial past. Farther west, West Bengal vanished into an eclectic Indian nationalism. I must say, though, that on a long train journey from Calcutta to Cochin in Kerala as a teenager, I thought (rightly or wrongly) that the particular shade of green found in the vegetation of West Bengal was lost till it was found in Kerala again. The renewed connection between Calcutta and Cochin made it possible for me to extend my Bengali-ness vicariously all the way to Kerala, making me quite a pan-Indian Bengali, I suppose. The connective nationalism of Indian Railways (like that of the State Bank of India) plays no small part in protecting the unitary reality of contemporary India.
Farther to the west of the rest of India lay the lands of Islam. They began with forbidden territory: Pakistan. Pakistan embodied the Partition of India, the departure of space from Indian time. For me, West Pakistan was unknown terrain: No one I loved or hated lived there. But if, indeed, there was an “Islamic world”, then I certainly inhabited it subliminally. I was (and am) a Muslim. I belonged to the global efflorescence of a great faith that had spread into my birth and self-recognition. West Pakistan had nothing to do with it. My mother was a practising Muslim (after a fashion), my father was a practising atheist. As a five-day-old, I had been “adopted” by a childless Hindu couple who lived in the same block of flats as my parents. Nilima Kurup (née Bose) took me to temples, and Parameshwara Raghava Kurup, well-versed in the Vedas, stayed away from the Puranas. But no one made me anything but a Bengali indebted forever to the Islamic religiosity of South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. Certainly, I belonged to the lands of Islam. There was nothing vicarious about this. It is just that West Pakistan had nothing to do with my identity. I respected its existence even as it stayed indifferent to mine (since it had no idea that I existed). That was all.
East Pakistan was different. I had relatives there on both my mother’s side and my father’s. I remember a childhood visit to my paternal uncle’s home in Narayanganj. It was raining. Unlike West Bengal (where rain falls on people), the people of East Bengal fall on the rain. A female cousin, all of six years old, made an excuse of going to the bathroom: instead, she took a bath in a roomful of rain as wide as the skies outside, within sight of the elders, dancing with the abandon of the water that flowed through her tresses, kissed her eyes, drenched her frock, and caused an uproar that led her to be dragged back to lunch, laughing unrepentantly. Meanwhile, her elder brother wanted to go to the “bathroom” as well. He was held back by his hair and resisted violently, raining cries of recrimination on everyone. Watching my wild bangal (native East Bengali) cousins in righteous ghoti (native West Bengali) awe, I decided that East Pakistan was too Bengali for me.
But it was not to be.
Baker-ul Haque came to live next door to our flat in Nasiruddin Road, Park Circus, Calcutta, in 1971. A year younger, he caught up with me in historical time with vivid stories of how he and his family had escaped Bogra, trudging through forests as the Pakistani air force strafed fleeing civilians, people fell dead on the left and the right, his mother held on his elder sister’s hand, he grasped his younger siblings firmly, his father led on, and all of them made their way — to me. I doubted specific details of his heroic journey, but not his visceral courage. I witnessed it when my pet dog chased him to the fourth-storey terrace, he climbed on to the parapet and kept walking on it calmly, I held the dog back, and I implored Baker to climb down. He smiled at me insouciantly. It was only when he saw tears in my eyes that he relented. Once he was safely down, I wanted to give him a hearty kick, but settled for a rib-shattering hug instead. Epaar Banglawins when Opaar Banglais safe.
Baker and his family lived next door, in the third-storey flat which the writer Syed Mujtaba Ali had occupied briefly earlier. Given his literary reputation, I stayed away from him, but he was rather fond of me, and I invaded his rooms whenever I found the door ajar. The family which stayed with my own family was that of Lutfar Rahman, an Awami League Member of the National Assembly from Khulna. Chachaji smiled a lot but was fierce, chachiamma was benign to a fault, their elder son Ornob took after his mother and their younger son Tulu (his pet-name) took after his father. Both brothers, who were much younger than I was, became mini companions on laughing excursions to the same terrace on which Baker had reduced me to tears.
The liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971 (which happily and sadly soon saw Baker’s and Lutfar Chacha’s families returning to Bogra and Khulna) was my rebirth as a Bengali. I had been born into the bifurcated mythos of Bengal, which was first partitioned administratively in 1905 in an act rescinded in 1911, and then partitioned along national lines in 1947 to produce Pakistan. The partition of that Pakistan in 1971 produced an independent Bengali nation called Bangladesh. It is only in the years to come that I would understand the reasons for the ontological security of Bangladesh: it is a sated or satisfied nation because its borders guarantee the two conditions of its existence — that it be Bengali and Muslim in co-determinate measure — with provision being made for the rights of non-Bengalis and non-Muslims within its borders. Indeed, so successful has Bangladeshi nationalism been that its majority population finds it unnecessary to seek links with West Bengal to achieve cultural completion. That attitude is reciprocated in West Bengal, whose incorporation into the Indian ethos makes Bangladesh its closest neighbour, but a neighbour nevertheless.
Yet, to look across the border within Bengal, to see its integrity, is to un-see its divisions. Bengal is named ground: To walk on it, even vicariously, is to recover the insights of Walter Benjamin on his visit to Moscow. Benjamin’s delineation of Russia as named ground (in his Reflections) leads him to proclaim that “you can only see if you have already decided… Only he who, by decision, has made his dialectical peace with the world can grasp the concrete. But someone who wishes to decide ‘on the basis of facts’ will find no basis in the facts”. The facts are always too many. The facts are contested. The facts might not even be facts. But Bengal is decidedly one — not because of its successes but because of its vulnerabilities.
The Refugee Within
The fragile figure of the refugee straddles the two Bengals. Achintya Kumar Sengupta’s poem, Udvastu, rendered unforgettably in the recitation by Kazi Sabyasachi, is a part of an aural tradition without which it is impossible to re-imagine the Bengal that existed once. What makes the refugee central to the idea of Bengal as a state of mind is that she embodies the land’s biological unity and integrity in the very act of losing her place in its stolen geography. Bearing the scars of uprooting, dispossession and exile, the refugee socialises the pain which lasts long after the immediate displacement of enforced migration has passed. To seek refuge is to pass from basha to bari. Basha is a temporary place of residence, no matter how long that temporarity lasts. Bari is an inherited abode which is both ancestrally personal and nationally interchangeable with desh, the native land. The udvastu or vastuhara from East Bengal seeking refuge in West Bengal since 1947 had to contend with what Nilanjana Chatterjee calls “epistemological denial in India”, wherein those who had crossed the border were treated as an economic burden.
The epilogue to the story of the refugees of 1947 was written in 1971, when it was the turn of Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan to join Bengali Hindus in seeking refuge in West Bengal. While the vast majority of refugees spent months in harrowing conditions, professional and other middle-class families were often hosted by middle-class families in West Bengal who could afford to do so. It was not unknown for the family of a Bengali Hindu, who himself had come from East Bengal in 1947, to share its basha with a Bengali Muslim family. The Bengali Muslim knew that he would return home if Bangladesh won the war. His Hindu host kept dreaming of a bari relegated forever to the nostalgic lay of a lost land.
My family was more lucky. Our first trip to Bangladesh was to Lutfar Chacha‘s home in Khulna across the land crossing in Benapole. Of course, I enjoyed the royal spreads at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. But what filled my eyes was the sight of Ornob, Tulu and their little sister (by then), strutting about their home as if it was theirs. It was theirs. Bangladesh restored in me my extended sense of myself, my identity as a resident of Epaar Bangla who sought completion in the autonomy of Opaar Bangla. Soon after, I visited Baker in Bogra. At one dinner, his mother sat down just the two of us together. Naturally, I got the larger piece of fish in a bowl. I cooked up an excuse for Baker to go and look for something. I exchanged the bowls. He returned to eat. When we began with the vegetables, he exchanged the bowls. That insouciant smile again. I hate him. He has outwitted me always inspite of being a year younger.
The refugee is the first citizen of imagined Bengal. She will also be the last. That is, without Bangladesh and West Bengal being the ultimate refuge of the transitional Bengali self, there will be no Bengal.
There will be no me.
Birth matters. No one can be born in two places.
In his essay, “Englands of the Mind”, Seamus Heaney registers the birthing role of place in the “interlacing and trellising of natural life and mythical life”; what a land does is to afford a man “nurture that he receives by living among his own”. Bengal forms a similar geography of the mind. It received me among my own. Life was material, which is to say that it veered from the banal to the brutal, but it was redeemed by the furtive companionship of the imagination. The trellising which Heaney notes does not have to be idyllic. It rarely is. Australian writer Dorothea Mackellar’s poem, “My Country“, written while she was homesick in Britain, captures the native lore of a land that her ancestors supposedly discovered for her. She writes: “I love a sunburnt country,/ A land of sweeping plains,/ Of ragged mountain ranges,/Of drought and flooding rains.” Australia is nothing without its enervating drought and its equally uncaring rain. Mackellar dismisses the pastoral epiphanies of a promised expatriate land, particularly “When sick at heart, around us/ We see the cattle die”. Natural disasters provoke her to reclaim art from nature. She redeems a wayward landscape by offering it refuge in her lines.
I am no Heaney or Mackellar. Bengal has no need to find refuge in my words. May these English words of mine find refuge in the lap of Bengal from which I sprung into life.
 Epaar Bangla: This side of Bengal (West Bengal)
 Opaar Bangla: That side of Bengal (East Bengal or Bangladesh)
 Father’s younger brother is chacha and ji is an honorific in chachaji
 Father’s younger brother’s wife
 Walter Benjamin, German-Jewish man of letters and aesthetician (1892-1940)
 Achintya Kumar Sengupta (1903-1976), writer and editor in Bengali language
 Refugee in Bengali
 Kazi Sabyasachi (died 1979), a Bengali Elocutionist, Nazrul’s son
 Dispossessed in Bengali
 Seamus Heany, 1939-2013, Irish writer
 Dorothea Mackellar, 1885-1962
Asad Latif is a Singapore-based journalist. He can be contacted at badiarghat@borderlesssg1
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