August 1947. India has finally triumphed in its 200-year struggle against British rule. People in Delhi rejoice at this new state of being; massive crowds descend upon the streets as Prime Minister Nehru gives his famous midnight address. But India has always been a land of contrast. While people exult in Delhi, it is just the beginning of weeks of heartbreak for the two provinces that have been divided between India and Pakistan – Punjab, and Bengal, where my dida, as the maternal grandmother is called in Bengali, is one among the 62 million inhabitants.
Seventy years later, I sit listening to this tale, clinging on to every word long after it has escaped dida’s lips. She was a little girl at the time of independence, all of ten, when she was uprooted from her home, condemned to make an unknown journey across a land newly divided on religious lines. This home was one tucked away at the corner of a small, quaint village near the city of Dhaka, facing a vast expanse of lush green rice fields. Tall, slender palm trees gracefully arched over quaint houses – thatched roofs sitting atop clay walls. A bamboo bridge offered a pathway over a tranquil creek dotted with a smattering of handcrafted boats. A stone’s throw from the modest house was a pond, that would swell up during the rains, as if an empty glass at a restaurant had just been replenished. Dida smiles tenderly as she recalls the monsoon she learnt to swim, her father thrusting her head into the numbingly cold water of the pond, yelling instructions over the loud splashes of her flailing limbs and her shrill wails.
There are yet more memories – the gently pattering rain outside the window washes them up in dida’s mind. She recounts the one hour walk to school, wading through the water the flooded river had poured onto the dirt path, concocting a delightful mixture of mud to splatter on her friends. Suddenly, she claps her hands, her face lighting up like that of a child opening her dream present under the Christmas tree. She lets out her trademark lilting giggle, and I instinctively draw closer in anticipation of what is to follow. I shortly find myself enthralled by her lively narration of the day she found a small fish swimming beside her, deftly picked it up and promptly threw it at the boys a few paces behind, to be chased all the way home into the arms of her waiting mother. I sit up with a start as I feel drops of water against my own arm, but it’s only the window, slightly ajar. I rise to close it, to keep out the rain.
Dida now proceeds to the main action of her story – the precarious journey across the newly drawn border. She will never forget her father’s face the morning he took the decision, like innumerable others, of abandoning the house he had built brick by brick. There was no time to find a buyer, no time to sell any of the furniture. He must have been at the epicenter of a hurricane of emotions, she says, but not a single muscle flinched on his face. Dida tells me she wanted to hold him tight, for the first time, but her mother was already doing the same to her.
As they bundled together a few belongings and hurriedly moved out – leaving behind countless memories – dida witnessed sights that are forever imprinted in her mind. She has never again seen such a massive congregation of people. The vast sea of humanity expanded for miles on end – children balancing bundles of clothes on their heads, babies placed around the necks of fathers or precariously perched with other siblings in the crowded arms of mothers, men carrying those who had given birth to them and were now too frail to walk. The journey itself was full of so many unknowns; it was not a question of when they would reach their destination, but whether they ever would.
While most who successfully crossed over to India did so on foot, dida says, her father took the brave decision of flying. He didn’t want to risk the loss of another loved one – the premature death of his only brother two years previously from pneumonia, just months before penicillin was available in India, had left a profound impact on him. And so he paid 50 rupees per ticket, enough money to fly from one coast of the US to the other in today’s world, for the relatively safe option of a one-hour flight over the border. This was at a time when he didn’t have the slightest idea about his future financial condition or security. That was dida’s first plane ride, but her overwhelming recollection is of the solitary tear trickling down her father’s cheek – the only time she ever saw him cry.
Once they landed in India, however, the resilience that still characterizes so many Indians, especially in the villages, took over. Dida’s family moved towards suburban Kolkata, the focal point of the influx of refugees from what had just become East Pakistan. Her father took his brother’s old job in a local gun factory. For a while, education drowned in the chaos surrounding dida, but as she tells me with a hint of pride, she made sure to go back to school, and eventually, obtained a master’s degree in botany – a rare feat for women at that time and place. The walk to her new school in many ways felt the same as before, she says. It was, after all, in the same land, differentiated only by human designation.
Listening intently, I remember the previous summer, visiting the house my great grandfather had built from scratch in that rural suburb. It had been introduced to me simply as our ancestral home, but now I begin to truly appreciate its significance – the clay stove on which lunch had been cooked, the wide veranda where we had sat and eaten the delicious food, the vast, fragrant garden out at the back I had explored while the others were sleeping after the meal. I think of the hard work dida’s father had put in to ensure there was food to cook on the stove, money saved to get the veranda built, and small saplings he could carefully tend to which had now grown into mature trees providing relief from the merciless sun. I feel privileged to have experienced not only such an integral part of my family history, but also a story of remarkable grit.
Soon after she has concluded her vivid recollection, I ask dida whether she has ever gone back to that village of her magical childhood. She looks out the window at the rain, by then pouring down in buckets. Your grandpa had booked bus tickets for us once, around twelve years ago, she replies, a touch indifferently. I seek no further details. I sense that she doesn’t want to talk about it, that she doesn’t want to ruin the painting of her childhood with the jarring stroke of a modern paintbrush.
Edited by Nitya Velakacharla
Photograph from The Hindu via Wikimedia Commons