I was nowhere near born when the Partition of 1947 happened. Yet, it is a topic that has intrigued me ever since I learnt about it through the mundane pages of my History books that rarely leaked anything beyond crude political facts, dates and timelines. Actually, if I think about it, I have had my first tryst with Partition when I came to know as a child that my ancestors originally belonged to Bangladesh. Till then it was nothing more to me than a neighbouring country sharing our language and national animal.
As we all know, Punjab and Bengal were the only two provinces hit hard by the blow of Partition. Gruesome riots were fuelled, millions of lives ended quicker than the fictional Red Wedding in Game of Thrones that haunts Gen Y for months. The reality was far more deplorable than what was depicted in Srijit Mukherjee’s dramatized venture “Rajkahini”. It is almost unbelievable that these two zones have still preserved a secular outlook even with the rest of North India being bamboozled into religious fanaticism.
Most of my idea about present Partition has emerged from the literature of Khushwant Singh, Manto, Ismat Chughtai and a series of Bengali writers. Today I was reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns where he expressed how the aftermath of partition has led to the death of elegance and exclusivity of Delhi that the Mughals had so carefully maintained. I realised Partition is a subject that will find diverse explanations from millions of its survivors.
Like every other Indian, I was growing up in an overly-concocted essence of nationalism, with a special inching towards the national anthem, Indian Army (as depicted by Bollywood) or anything remotely related to Mera Bharat Mahan. So, at a tender age of 7, when my uncle first revealed my ancestral roots and attributed my origin to another country, I sternly rejected it. It was only when I got verbal confirmation from my grandparents that they were indeed refugees once, that I had to accept the facts half-heartedly.
Over the years, my nationalistic sentiments mellowed (thankfully), and a general interest sprouted to know about their lives before 1947. Picking grains of Muri (puffed rice) from her bowl, I leaned onto my Thamma’s lap, as she shared bits and pieces of her life before she became my grandma.
My grandmother was a little village girl, eldest of a number of siblings that give you a headache to remember all their names. She spent her days playing, running around, and learning the basic Bengali alphabets – when she got a break from housework and looking after her little brothers and sisters. When Partition struck in 1947, all she remembers was the frantic running, the screaming and the blood; before long she lost everything she endeared and found herself huddled into a large barge that brought her family to Kolkata. For some days, her family lived in temporary refugee shelters that would later turn into the present dingy colonies of South Kolkata. Thankfully, she was too young to endure post-traumatic stress disorder; or maybe too ancient to be diagnosed.
Soon, she was sent off to live with a relative in Kolkata, where she was admitted to a school for a few years, before being married off as a liability. Here, luck favoured her, big time. She found her soulmate. My Thamma and Dadu is the sweetest couple I have ever seen in my life. After a low-key wedding joining two refugee families, the two of them together moved into a small town and that hometown is still my peace abode.
My grandparent’s bedroom has a series of old studio photographs. There is one gentleman whose attire resembled my silver screen ideas of the quintessential Bengali zamindar. My father pointed him out to be my great-grandfather. He was a colourful man, as the saying goes in my family. His son, my grandfather, had seen a darker shade of Partition, which I believe, still haunts him at times, even at the age of 94. When Partition happened, Dadu was a young adult with little understanding of the world. His father, as mentioned before, was indeed a very rich man once. He staked a major chunk of his mortal possessions for fighting a legal battle with another filthy rich landlord, over some land disputes. His enormous ego overshadowed his family responsibilities. Inevitably, he was ripped off his proud wealth. Amidst this calamity, Partition happened.
Dadu is a self-made man. He didn’t share much with me about Partition, his words mostly resonated around how hard he had worked to recover from nothingness into a decent livelihood. And kudos to that man.
From childhood, I have seen my grandparents avoid meat. Weirdly, they categorized onions and garlic as non-vegetarian. I never got a satisfactory explanation about this. It was not until a few days ago that I realised that these foods feature heavily in the Islamic cuisine. Despite teaching their children the basic tenets of secularity, my Thamma and Dadu could never really forget the horrors of religious riots. Hence, their small revolt lay within their food habits that changed overnight.
Today any Bengali would find the terms Ghoti and Bangal familiar. To the non-Bengali readers, Ghoti refers to the original inhabitants of West Bengal and Bangals are the refugees that poured in from beyond the partitioned borders, bringing a different dialect, a rural-based culture and palate. The Ghoti-Bangal pseudo-rivalry goes a long way, ranging from Ilish-Chingri (Hilsa vs Tiger Prawns) to East Bengal-Mohanbagan (football clubs). When I was a child, these differences were subtle and suited a lazy Sunday evening Adda (gathering). But, recently I have started to spot derogatory posts on social media with each group trying to throw insensible muck on the other. Needless to say, the creators of these memes are born and fed in the Indian soil. They have zero traces of the elegant nineteenth-century Kolkata or a scarring partition in their bones. This pains me. A former friend of mine used to taunt me for carrying the blood of “refugees” – since he believed himself to be a notch better from me just because his ancestors could afford more Posto (poppy) in their food, while mine survived days in makeshift tents, cooking leafy greens growing in shady bushes. No wonder he is a “former” friend.
Partition is a scar that still bleeds in the heart of the limited number of survivors. It is a memory more painful than your break up. It is an emotion more tragic than you not able to buy an iPhone X. It is a shadow darker than the god-awful jokes you share on Facebook terming as dark humour. So I send out an appeal – do not mock it, please.