From Keeper of Stories to Collector of Objects: My Journey with the Partition

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Growing up in a traditional, middle-class Bengali household, I was introduced to the spectre of 1947 Partition by Ma. Once done with her household duties, she found her retreat in books that she discerningly read in Baba’s study. With impish delight, I would take the opportunity to play around our home, avoiding Ma’s careful eyes. However, mostly, I also saw her reading to understand how books were an integral part of our family for both Ma and Baba. I vividly remember one afternoon, when after concluding a novel, she neatly folded the book to narrate its story to me. She had finished reading Atin Bandyopadhyay’s Neelkantho Pakhir Khoje. While telling me the story, she suddenly mentioned, “Do you know that my family is from that part of Bengal? My great grandfather migrated in the 1900s, so we did not experience the trauma and violence which marked the 1947 Partition. Few of our relatives, however, had to go through the excruciating pain of being rendered homeless overnight. Ask Boro Mama (eldest maternal uncle) about it. He will tell you the stories.”

My formative years were replete with stories that my maternal uncles told me about their families and families of their friends who migrated from East Bengal (formerly East Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh). Against the backdrop of fear and trepidation, the stories also highlighted the resilience of those who refused to be victims; instead, devoured the pangs of life to recreate a sense of belonging to the place where they migrated.

I always believe that a story is left incomplete without the interlocutor. Hence, on completing my higher studies, I embarked on a project to record individual stories of those who migrated during the dramatic decades of the second Partition of Bengal (1947-1964). Theories on the 1947 Partition focus primarily on the sufferings and violence that followed the catastrophic event. What I wanted to record was the exemplary resilience and fortitude displayed by individuals who left their ancestral land and rehabilitated without compromising their self-esteem and dignity. Evidently, the individuals whose life-stories I recorded were quite old. My first respondent-participant, Mr. Chintamani Saha, passed away last year. Also, I realised that these stories existed in the family even before I decided to record them. From one generation to the other, these stories had percolated to create a sense of family history, defining, to a considerable extent, the members of the family. At times, the youngest generation would prompt the interviewee to say, “Tell him about the time you lost your migration certificate” or, “You didn’t tell him about the police officer who helped you in Sealdah station.” An individual’s story transpired to form a cohesive family history. It existed and continues to exist, and this inspired me to interact with the second and the third generation members to see how they perceived of the event and in what manner they engaged with the memories of their preceding generation, or, do they at all want to keep the memories alive.

I wanted to probe into the concept of ‘inherited memory’ because human memory got abraded, and more often than not, etiolated as time gradually wore it down. The mnemonic trace of one’s memory failed to be precise, especially for an event that appeared to be as contentious as the 1947 Partition. The sheer idea of human memory being fragile and malleable led me to explore how material items carried by individuals, or their families could help understand the moment of rupture and the impact it had on the individual psyche. Even if one’s memory betrayed oneself, the object aided to resuscitate a chain of thought that connected one to his/her past. Preserving the material object evinced its importance in the family as well.

While following individual narratives, I encountered Mr. Anil Kumar Kundu, whose life-story could be defined as the curious case of a man who held two passports. Born on 1st May 1932, Mr. Kundu was a resident of Kulpadha that fell under Madaripur sub-division in present-day Bangladesh. He was about to take his matriculation examination when riots in Calcutta and Noakhali resulted in cross-border migration. His family, nonetheless, waited till 1950 to migrate.

 

He obtained First Class marks in the matriculation examination and had prudently conserved the documents. He looked at his matriculation certificate and said, “The result, published by the East Bengal Secondary Board, had to be corrected. So they cut the Bengal part and wrote Pakistan instead.” It was necessary for the concerned authority to assert East Pakistan over East Bengal. “Simply overwriting Bengal with Pakistan does not change anything, you know! I’m still a First Class graduate from East Bengal,” emphasised Mr. Kundu. His eldest brother, who had a factory in Brabourne Road, Calcutta, secured a reasonable amount of land in Netaji Nagar. “I helped my brother to set-up the house with bamboos and barrels. We hardly had any money to build anything better.” Netaji Nagar had the distinction of being the second oldest refugee colony in Calcutta after Bijoygarh.

 

Mr. Kundu narrated, “I have a special passport. I can show you. The passport was meant for travelling between India and East Pakistan though I never used it. However, I still have it”. Furnished by the District Magistrate of 24 Parganas, the passport testified the unique problem posed by the partitioning the land in Bengal. “Refugees kept pouring in Calcutta. During my first year in Bangabasi College, I saw so many refugees in Sealdah station! The numbers kept increasing and they kept accumulating,” said Mr. Kundu. The fact that the Bengal Partition did not witness, what can be called population exchange, like it did in Punjab meant that batches of refugees crossed the borders without adhering to a particular timeframe. Perhaps that influenced the authorities to issue special passports to those who had families on the other side of the borders.

These documents can be read as timely interventions that present a human face and voice to the countless numbers we come across while deliberating on the 1947 Partition. When memory fails, these documents can be preserved as testimonials of an undivided Bengal, symptomatic of a historical period that is past but has survived into the present.

 

Sumallya Mukhopadhyay

Doctoral Fellow and Teaching Assistant, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

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