Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a culture
I was startled by the greeting. I was sixteen-going-on-seventeen and — en route to Darjeeling — I was visiting Malda, my ‘Mamabari’ where my mother lived until she was married at sixteen-just-turned-seventeen. I had just finished my school finals in ‘Bombai’ and was enjoying the long summer break with my school friend Swapna, my paternal didi, Tandra, and my maternal didi, Nanda. My Mama’s son, Shyamal, and his friend, Subhash, had graciously taken upon them the onus of taking us around Gaur, Pandua and Adina. All these are relics of the historical capitals that hark back to a glorious Bengal long past and — for most Indians – lost in oblivion. And here, in the 12-gate mosque of Baroduari, they were singing paeans to the Shahs and Sens and Pals of a medieval Bengal!
I was soon to face history-in-the-making. For, the rectangular brick and stone structure with three aisles, eleven arched openings, and so-many-times-that domes, built sometime in the 16th century and now in the care of Archeological Survey of India, was teeming with barely-clad men women and kids who were fleeing on a daily(or hourly?)-basis the gola-barood of the Razakars – the paramilitary force General Tikka Khan had unleashed in the eastern wing of Pakistan. This was May of 1971 and, even in the apolitical clime of the tinsel town in Bombay, we knew that the Pakistani President Yahya Khan was hounding supporters of the Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
I was therefore thrilled to hear the boom-boom-boom periodically rupturing the hazy horizon in the distant. Was it the spiteful army goons or was it the guerrillas fighting back? “How wonderful it would be to meet some of them!” the romantic in me spoke aloud to the red-eyed men and women who had greeted me with ‘Joy Bangla!’
“Don’t!” Shyamal Da and Subhash drew me aside. “Don’t get close to them – don’t you see they have all got ‘joy bangla’?”
“So what?!” I retaliated, “They are all infected with the love for their country – that’s why they are saying ‘Joy Bangla’! Isn’t that good!”
“No, they are all infected with conjunctivitis – it is highly infectious and spreading rapidly in the camps. So now, not only in Malda but all through West Bengal, ‘joy bangla’ is the name for conjunctivitis.”
Mangoes. Raw, green, going yellow-orange-red. Stretch out your hand, pluck them off the tree, hit hard on them with your fist and bite into the sour-sweet flesh… But we girls failed to emulate what Shyamal and Subhash could do with such ease on our way to Singhabad, the last stop for our trains this side of the border in that part of Bengal. Nevertheless, the fragrances of Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli remain fresh in my memory years after Shyamal, Nandadi, Swapna, Tandradi have all followed Bangobandhu to a borderless land beyond the clouds.
Singhabad is where my mother Kanaklata owned some 27 bighas of cultivable land inherited from her father: Chandrakanta Ghosh had, in 1940s, apportioned plots to his city dwelling daughters, Malati and Ranjita too, worried that they might face difficulties if their ‘job-dependent’ husbands lost their all to the Partition! He had reasons to worry. He had exchanged most of his land in Dinajpur but the daughters were married into families that had their base in Dhaka, Munshigunj and Kustia. Before you turn to your Google Guru let me tell you – all these were part of East Bengal and are now in Bangladesh.
Much later, in 2001, I would understand my grandfather’s angst when centurion Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal told me in Delhi: “This part of the subcontinent has seen three partitions – in 1905, 1947 and 1971.” The doyen of modernism in Indian painting, who had moved from Calcutta to Lahore in his youth and from Lahore to Delhi in 1947, had brought alive another chapter of history that most of us in India or Bangladesh don’t often recall. Yes, in 1905 the ‘territorial reorganisation’ of the Bengal Presidency by Lord Curzon was said to be for “better administration” since Bengal, for centuries, was spread right up to Burma in the East and well into Assam and Tripura in the North-East, into Bihar and Jharkhand in the West and in the South to Odissa. Noted: but why did it have to be along religious lines, separating the ‘Muslim-dominated’ areas from the ‘Hindu-majority’ ones? Because together the Hindus and Muslims had taken up arms against the goras in 1857, and starting from Barrackpore the mutiny had spread to Lucknow, Jhansi, Gwalior, Meerut, Delhi… After 1857, the last Mughal Badshah, 82-year-old Bahadur Shah Zafar, had to be exiled in Rangoon while in 1885 the last emperor of Burma, Thibaw Min, was forced to live in exile at Ratnagiri…
If it were not so tragic, it would have been ludicrous, this ‘exchange’ of emperors.
Nandadi’s brother, Nirjhar, now 79, vividly recalls crossing the newly defined boundary to come away for good from Meherpur, in Dinajpur of East Bengal, to Malda with his mother — my aunt — Pramila, his three-year-old sister, Nanda, and a just-born brother, Nirmal. “We were coming in three bullock carts: the first one driven by a certain Mongra carried our eldest Mama, his wife Charulata and youngest son Subrata; and the last had our younger Mama’s wife Gayatri, son Suvendu and daughter Maitreyi. Many people were coming just like us, there was no knowledge of the word ‘Passport’ and no concept of ‘Visa’. Since our Dadu – maternal grandfather Chandra Kanta – had to stay back to wind up things after us, he took us to a dear friend of his, a Muslim named Sukardi Chowdhury, in Anarpur and asked him to accompany us since he had a gun.
“He was to reach us to Jagannathpur where Dadu had built a house on the newly exchanged land just six kilometers away from Meherpur. Sukardi Chowdhury lived two kilometers from the border but we had to cross river Punarbhaba on a boat and then we followed the road along the railway line. All of a sudden, we were startled by a piercing cry in a female voice. ‘Who is this? Who goes there?’ demanded Sukardi Chowdhury. He climbed on to the railway track and witnessed some miscreants harassing a woman. He fired his gun in the air and the rascals fled. He walked up to the woman and found that the malefactors had bitten off the nipples of the woman who was bleeding and writhing in pain.
“Sukardi Chowdhury had a gamchha tied around his head like a bandana. He took it off and wound it around the chest of the victim. He advised her companions to go along the railway track straight to Singhabad station, take a train to Malda and seek medical aid there. ‘That will save your life,’ he assured her. I will never forget.” Incidentally Nirjhar’s father, Makhan Chandra Ghosh, did not cross the border until 1980. Along with his ageing mother he had stayed back to care for his widowed sister since their land further inside Dinajpur could not be exchanged.
This 27-acre land in Singhabad adjacent to the No-Man’s Land on the Bangladesh border was so dear to Kanaklata that she would not hear a word about selling it off although she lived far away with her husband, Nabendu, who was busy scripting films. “One should never forget one’s roots,” she told me in 1971 when she went around with a donation-book raising chanda for the Bangla refugees. She was delighted when – later – the government of India issued Refugee Relief stamps that had to be affixed to every letter, be it a postcard, an envelope, or an inland letter. Was it because deep within she identified with the uprooted people who were forced by history to cross borders?
Ma’s love for her land had, perhaps, infected us. When she passed on in 1999, we dispersed her ashes in the pond on this land. In 2007, before my son, Devottam, was to depart for higher studies abroad, he visited this innermost corner of his land. In 2017, when Ma would have turned ninety, my husband, Debasis, celebrated by planting mango trees around the pond and released fish, the sales of which now pays for a Durga Puja on the land. Yet, just last December, we severed our formal ties by selling off the ‘two-acre land.’ But no, Kanaklata is not forgotten by the men and women – many of whom studied in the school she helped set up long before government aid came their way. They are setting up a temple in her memory…
But hang on friends, that’s not the end of my story, “picture abhi baaki hai!”
On December 13, 1971, Tandra’s elder sister Chhanda got married. She came from Patna where Nabendu’s brother lived; the groom, Animesh, came from Delhi. But Kanaklata had organised everything in Bombay, in the same house in Malad where our family has lived since 1951. This Goan-style bungalow had a garden surrounding it and this tiny ‘lawn’ was to be the wedding venue. However, ten days before the event when the invitations had gone out and the baratis had already booked their tickets, aerial strikes on Indian air stations led to an all-out war with Pakistan.
This was ominous for many reasons. Six years before this, during another war with Pakistan, my grandfather had passed away in August 1965. This time around, the mighty Seventh Fleet of the USA had entered the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan in the war. Sirens were being sounded at regular intervals and we joked that – since both the bride and the groom were trained musicians – these sirens were ‘replacing’ shehnai by Bismillah and party. Why? Because the police showed up to warn us that no conch shells or ululations that mark traditional revelry at Bengali weddings were to be sounded — and not even a single ray of light should evade the black-cloth-wrapped pandal that had to be erected to cover the house!
Ill omens? Never mind. You can’t stop a wedding because a war was on! All the Bengali families of Bollywood united that evening to celebrate with bated breath. And on December 16, when the bride was being formally inducted into the groom’s family in Delhi over the sumptuous meal of Boubhat, news came that General Niazi of Pakistan had surrendered to General Jagjit Singh Arora of India.
So Vijay Diwas is one day that unites India and Bangladesh in celebrating its actual secession from Pakistan. “Joy Bangla!” – we all said as Chhanda and Animesh led a chorus that sang,
Aamar Sonar Bangla, aami tomay bhalobashi!*
Oh my glittering Bengal, I love you…
Didi – elder sister
Mama – mother’s brother
golaa-barood — ammunition
Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli – Varities of mango
bighas – acres
goras – whites
Badshah — Emperor
chanda – donations
picture abhi baaki hai – The movie is still not over
Boubhat – wedding reception, traditionally
*Song by Tagore that became the national anthem of a free Bangladesh
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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