Sunday, 25 November 2018

What Absence Shapes

Rickshaw van in Taki

We are on a three wheeler, my cousin and I - three bicycle wheels with a flat wooden platform for seating, the front wheel connected to a saddle for the ‘rickshaw-van’ puller.  A common mode of transport in most of rural West Bengal, in India. The road, after a feeble attempt at being macadamised, peters out to a rich brown, wet mud track. It is mid-monsoons, the season of rains. The growth all around is so lush that the diffuse light of a cloudy day is filtered green through it. The road runs parallel to the river, the glimmer of water breaks through the dense foliage from time to time, sometimes the branches clear up to reveal the waterscape. There are small, pointy boats out, each one with the Indian tricolour flying. We are at Taki at the border - the far bank of the river is Bangladesh. Debhata, Satkhira, Khulna. The names are just as familiar as the Bengali ones this side of the river – Bashirhat, Taki, 24 Pargana.

My cousin tells me there are plans afoot for a trip to Dhaka in December, a large family group, for a nostalgia fix. Or a pilgrimage to touch the roots. You shuffle your words and you take your choice. It is easy now, since the rail connection between Dhaka and Calcutta was re-established after some 40 odd years in 2008. Ashbe naki? he asks. You coming or what? I can feel the connection between my head and heart snap into two. Of course, of course! But I shake my head instead. I can hear myself mouth Parbo na re. I can’t. Like many other family occasions, I cannot be present on this one too.

Absence punctuates the expat life. In my particular expat life, absence shapes my identity as well. A certain kind of absence  - of rivers and lakes, of places, of a particular tree grove and its leaf shadows on a courtyard I have never seen. Padma, Meghna, Dhaka, Goalondo, Rajshahi, Jessore, Naranyangunj, Munshigunj, Chattagram, Barishal. I have place names, words, stories, layered and stashed in my brain, I carry the collective memory of two generations before me, but I have no memories that I myself have made with them. I have wanted to match the stories with a corresponding one of my own, slot an image into the words for as long as I can remember.


The first Partition of Bengal happened in 1905, ostensibly because the Bengal Presidency was too big and unwieldy for the British to administer. Bengal was split largely along religious lines into predominantly Muslim East Bengal and predominantly Hindu West Bengal. At the time the Hindus were an elite but large minority, controlling land and trade, monopolising education and plum jobs.

Calcutta, the capital of British India and the second city of the British Empire after London, was located in West Bengal which was generally more developed than the rest of the region. It had a concentration of industries and the sole university in the province.  By contrast East Bengal was less developed and poorer.

The Partition created a major political crisis – it sparked off the Swadeshi movement, the boycott of British goods, intensified the calls for independence – Hindus in Bengal erupted in fury at the British attempt to divide and rule. Due to the spurt of revolutionary activity, riots and violence, West and East Bengal were reunified in 1911. The division was tweaked along linguistic lines rather than faith based. At the same time, the British colonialist moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi to escape the issues the revolutionaries were causing.

Fearful that British reforms would favour the more vocal and violent Hindus, Muslim leaders lobbied the colonial government. So when the British agreed to limited Indian participation in the governance of India, they also created faith based electorates – Muslims voted for Muslim candidates and Hindus for Hindu ones in the legislative council elections. The first political wedge was driven fast between the communities. Over time stances hardened and the two communities developed separate political agendas. Religious tensions worsened.

Much as the Hindu leaders of India campaigned for a united India, the Muslim political leaders wanted nothing to do with it. They demanded a separate homeland for the Muslims, without which there would be no negotiations for independence. So Bengal was split again at Independence in 1947 as the British left, and this time it was final. The Partition meant the mass scale migration of millions of Hindus from East Bengal to the West, and Muslims in the other direction, in an atmosphere of great communal tension, although the violence in Bengal was limited to certain pockets only. It created an unprecedented refugee crisis in West Bengal. Waves of refugees came into West Bengal again in 1971 during the Bangladeshi war of liberation. Economic migrants continue to come into Calcutta even today, the Indian border is fairly porous.

My family, originally from a tiny village near river Meghna in district Faridpur of modern day Bangladesh, left the rural homestead sometime in 1945 well before the Partition. My grandfather was the youngest of four brothers. The eldest had a police job and had built a property in Ballygunge in South Calcutta (then considered a not-so-desirable suburb) in the late thirties. It wasn’t a desperate dash for safety or anything. First the women and children came, and then the men too joined them as the communally charged situation worsened. It was a temporary measure, till things settled down, no-one anticipated staying more than a few months. There was no leave taking, no grand drama or sadness, they did not consider the trip an uprooting. As a result, they never found closure either. My grandfather told me years later he had never imagined that Bengal would really end up partitioned and he would not be able to go back. That he would live to see a day when he would need a passport to travel to his own village. The outrage and grief in his voice had shaken me and upended my perceptions of the period and of our place in it.


Both Bengals in one frame, the far bank is Bangladesh

My cousin and I were born long after the Partition of course, but then every child is a Partition child in my family. Sometimes I feel all of us are Partition children regardless of where our families’ ancestral homes are – in the East or West. There is no Bengali whose grandparents or great grandparents have not witnessed the break-up of Bengal, either from an exile’s perspective or from a resident’s. Each generation inherits the collective nostalgia for the lost homeland or the swamped one, the forever-changed. The regrets of what might have been get progressively gentler with each generation but never wash completely away.

The children of my family, and I suspect many others like mine, have been raised mapping losses. In my case – the village that was situated in the crook of an oxbow lake; the family home that was the only permanent construction there, proper brick and mortar; the rooms fragrant with baskets of ripening mangoes in season under the beds; the pond behind the house; the Chandi mandap where the annual religious festivals were held; the terrible reasons why the weaning ceremony was never celebrated for the children of the family. There were two segregated kitchens – one strictly vegetarian, the other where fish was cooked. There was a foot-operated rice mill which womenfolk used to husk the paddy – it yielded handfuls of unpolished grain with a coating of red bran still on, a different deliciousness from the over-polished, pearl-white, machine milled, urbanised rice. There were trips made by steam launch where the crew cooked fresh, leaping fish caught right there from the river itself to feed the passengers.

I  have learnt the names of that lost homeland – Meghna, Machpara, Faridpur, Pabna, Khulna - long before I have learnt those of my actual homeland, those that are closer, more accessible, those that don’t require a passport. The concentric circles around the point of my birthplace have impinged less on my consciousness than a place and a time as unattainable now as the stars. As a child, my grandfather taught me to answer ‘Faridpur’ if anyone asked where I was from. It took me years to understand that and then to get it out of my head. I have never been to that home, yet that is where I’ve been raised practically all my childhood. An absence shaping memory, shaping habit. An absent homeland shaping self-perception and finally, an entire identity.


Okay, I think an explanation is in order. I'm trying to sneak in another MOOC before 2018 closes, this time it's on Creative Nonfiction. This above essay I wrote there, where the general consensus seems to be 'stick to the family history, cut/condense the Partition background.' I'd really value the regulars' feedback on this. What do you think - omit or condense? Is anyone who is not connected to India aware of the Indian Partition? Thank you, as always, for your patience.


  1. As a child I was taught history as dates/battles/rulers. I loathed it.
    Later I came to understand that history shapes and flavours individuals and families. And perhaps the humble families even more than the ruling class. And am endlessly fascinated. So my two cents worth is don't omit OR condense but show it as the seasoning it has become...

    1. Thanks, EC. I wasn't able to figure out how exactly to condense either, and omitting wasn't really an option, given that very few people outside the subcontinent would know what 'Partition' meant, so...whew! Glad of your advice.

  2. I admit I did not study your post, but breezed through it. However, no matter the outcome, family ties rule. I sorta think you should attend whatever...otherwise you could have regrets. And as I get older (much older - I did turn 60) I think regrets should be avoided. You can have a stand, and stick with your gut..but is that really...truly what you want?

    I guess I am your devil's advocate...the key is the question of regrets...

    Cheers my friend and I support your decision either way.

    1. Thank you for being my devil's advocate! And age is just a number. :)

  3. Hi Nila - write both, or remove the parts that aren't necessary for one, but important for the other. Now I'm looking at the pioneer history here ... and am blogging ... it throws a different perspective on things.

    I am coming back to read this through properly ... it'll add another layer to my lack of knowledge ... and I need to sit with Wiki / Google open so I can check in on your references and see the areas you're talking about ... then I'll have added to the puzzle and my lack of understanding of the area. I do know of Partition ... but not enough ...

    I think having 'sort of read through' that the post is very relevant today with what is happening re religion in the Asian areas ... and East Bengal particularly with reference to Burma and the Rohingyha conflict.

    I'll be back and this comment may be rather vague as I don't have time to check things out -for which apologies ... take care and thanks for writing this - cheers Hilary

    1. History does completely change the relationship we have with a place.

      Unfortunately we are seeing an escalation of intolerance everywhere around the world, very disturbing.

      Thanks for your inputs re this piece. Much valued.

  4. Personally, my own written reminiscences are often interspersed with historical background necessary for some (if not all) of my readers' ease in understanding. Therefore, I had no problem at all with your approach. I actually enjoy the mix of personal experiences with educational asides.

    1. Here there is a consensus, elsewhere it's not so's kind of split between people who want the history and those who think it distances the reader. Personally I find the broader history essential to know if I am to appreciate the personal, family histories, they are complementary and feel incomplete without each other. But that's my preference. Not everyone feels that way.

      Thank you for your considered views David, always cogent and helpful. Also for your patience! This is the longest I've ever written here.

    2. I think other bloggers know all too well that each person speaks in their own voice on their own blogs, so they're more accepting of each other. The outside world? Not so much.

      As far as my patience with the length of your post goes, you have visited my blog, right? Ha. I always appreciate whenever someone feels interested enough to make it all the way through one of my posts, no matter the length. That's why I always end with "Thanks for your time," or some variation. There are plenty of things people could be doing other than reading my blog.

    3. Ya, I feel the exact same.

      But I usually keep the out-of-control word counts strictly for the A-Z in some weird shoot at own foot exercise. Easy to keep the lid on word counts with poetry, of course.


Comment moderation is on. Anonymous comments will be deleted forthwith. Nonymous comments always welcome :) Thank you for your patience!