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Children of Refugees (2)

Ruminations on the exodus of the Bengali Hindus from East Bengal (Bangladesh).

Episode 2: Across the Border

  • Kalidas Ghosh

My ancestral home was in Jhandi Gram, Bhanga Thana in Faridpur district of present day Bangladesh. My grandfather and father studied in Bhanga English High School and Faridpur Rajendra College. My grandfather passed matriculate and my father was a graduate. My father used to work in Faridpur District Magistrate’s office in Pre-independence India. In 1947, he was given an option to continue in his current position or take up a new position in Writers Building, Calcutta (Kolkata). Since my older brother and five elder sisters were either studying or married in Kolkata, he chose the option to transfer to Kolkata.

My mother, grandmother and I stayed back in our ancestral home in Jhandi Gram. My father used to visit us at least two to three times every year. In addition, he used to write to us on a daily basis. The village postmaster Jibonkrishna Sen, was our family friend, and our private tutor – he would personally deliver our letters. My grandma and mother were Pakistani passport holders and visited my sisters and elder brother in Kolkata with tourist visas before 1965.

My ancestral home was quite big and we owned about 13 bigha* of land in total. We had lots of fruit trees, a vegetable garden and two ponds. Our garden had about 17 mango trees, 13 coconut trees, guava, plum, and 6/7 date trees. Our home had 4 spacious rooms, built with posts made from Sal tree with two stories and had a tin roof.

In addition to this, we had approximately 200 bigha of farmland, which was leased to local sharecroppers (borgadaar). They would bring a part of the crop as per verbal agreement and that would sustain us for the whole year. Some of the farmland was far away, and the sharecroppers would bring the rice in a boat. Sometimes we would have the rice unhusked (Dhan morai) in our yard – 8/10 bulls were required to carry it and it took as long as a week.

Our situation became bad after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. The Muslim peasants stopped giving us our share of crops, which was our source of sustenance. In spite of owning about 200 bigha farm land, we faced starvation from 1965-1969 and had to flee our motherland and ancestral home. For those four years we survived on the fruits and fish from our ancestral home.

The problem was not confined just to crop, some of our Muslim neighbors started harassing and taunting us in every possible manner. In the past we did not have any enmity with the local Muslim families. My sisters used to have Muslim girlfriends and the would play together in our garden. My father was addressed as “Baro Korta”* and I was called “Choto Korta”. Soon after 1965 war, people behind me started calling me “choto kutta” (slang literally meaning little dog). The local Muslims also openly started calling us “Malayan” (malaun). Even though there were no riots, there was constant harassment. I am sure some our Muslim neighbors wanted to kill Hindus, but they did not have the courage to show their enmity openly. They wanted us to starve to death slowly so that they do not get blamed for our death. They used this silent method to eliminate us. Hindu girls from neighboring villages were married to Muslims – I do not know if those women married willingly or were forced. The environment was tense and worsening with a rabid anti-Hindu sentiment on the rise.

There was some exception in the attitude of our Muslim neighbors. There was one Muslim peasant who continued to give us our share of crops. His name was Asiruddin Molla. My grandmother was very fond of him and trusted him. Probably she decided to stay back in Faridpur because of people like Asiruddin Molla.

Regular letters from my father from Kolkata also stopped due to the Indo-Pak war. Letters from India were not allowed to enter Pakistan. So my father used another method of reaching us. He used to send letters to a family friend in London, and he would in turn mail the letter to us in Jhandi. We used to get his letters via London about 2-3 times a year. We were literally cut out from outside world. If I needed to read the daily newspaper, I had to go to Bhanga Press house near Bhanga English High School, which was about 3 miles away.

By the beginning of 1969, the situation b came extremely precarious for us. My grandmother decided to leave our ancestral home and move to Kolkata. However, her financial situation was not at all favorable at that point in time. My father had spent all his savings in getting my sisters married and had no choice but to stay with his sister. He could not afford to build a home in Kolkata by himself.

At that time martial law had been imposed and Hindus were unable to sell property due to communal the Enemy Property Act, part of the religious apartheid imposed by the Pakistani regime. Hindus who were the native inhabitants of the land, suddenly became the enemy of the country. My grandmother realized we could not leave without any resources to build a home in Kolkata. They did not have much gold either – they had married off six daughters by that time with whatever wealth they had. My grandmother confided to Asiruddin Molla about her desire to leave East Pakistan and flee to India. She asked him to take possession of our home in return for some nominal money. Asiruddin was not wealthy by any means, but he gathered 10,000 taka* and gave it to my grandmother. She signed on a paper (called red paper which is similar to stamp paper) giving possession of our home to Asiruddin’s family when we leave. All these preparations and paperwork took more than six months to complete.

We decided to leave Jhandi gram on the the night of Astami, 1969. My mother packed up the vigraha (idol) of our Griha Devata and some copper utensils used for puja. We also packed few clothes. I went to Asiruddin’s home at around 9 pm and told him about our plan to leave by midnight. He would come to our home when we leave and take possession. I told him to come to our home silently and avoid any busy roads so that it does not raise other neighbors’ suspicion. When Asiruddin came to our place at midnight with his son-in-law, he told my grandmother, “মাঠাইন, আপনাগো যাইতে দেইখ্যা আমার বড় কষ্ট হইতাছে” (Mathaein*, it breaks my heart to see you leave like this”).

We went to my younger sister in-law’s house in Sadardi which was about 6 miles away by boat. Our next stop was Khulna where a Hindu family helped us to connect with the people broker who would take us to India. Even though we were in an extremely bad situation, I remember enjoying the day and watching Nabami Durga puja in Khulna. The broker took us to the border the next day, which was Dashami. Our grandmother walked straight to the border checkpost, as she was old and did not invoke suspicion. My mother and I walked and entered India few miles away from the check post illegally, with the help of the people broker. We were then kept in a house near the border for about half a day. The people broker asked us not to talk in public places as our accent would give out our identity as East Pakistanis. In the evening, we were taken to Bangaon(West Benga, India). Our next destination was Shyambazar(Calcutta). I do not remember the details of this journey very well. From Shyambazar the people broker boarded us in a public bus and brought us to Ramkrishna Tapoban in Nimta. Swami Sukhatananda, the founder of Ramkrishna Tapoban lived in our ancestral home in Jhandi. My grandfather had helped him in his studies. He welcomed us with open arms and showered us with love and compassion.

My father built a small house with two rooms on a 2 Katha* land in Nimta, Belghoria. The total cost was 13,200 rupees. Our grihaprabesh* was 20 Assar*, 1377(1970 AD/CE). I lost a year in school as we had to leave East Pakistan in the middle of the year secretly. My grandmother died 3 years later. Sometimes I feel, had we been able to sell the farm land, we would not have to struggle so badly in India. It was an uphill struggle, blood, sweat and tears, after coming to India, but I could never think of going back to East Pakistan again. The aggression of the Muslim neighbors and the humiliation meted out at us haunts me to this day. But I have not lost faith in humanity completely because of people like Asiruddin Molla – I will be thankful to him till the day I die. I treat people equally – I have a good relationship with both Hindu and Muslim coworkers. I do not discriminate as I know the pain of being discriminated against.

Notes: (for words marked with *)

Bigha – A land measurement unit used in many parts of India and Bangladesh. 1 bigha equals to 14,400 sq.ft or 1/3 of an acre.

Boro Korta, Choto Korta – Korta or Karta (কর্তা) is literally master or sir. A respective term for a zamindar. Boro meaning elder and choto meaning younger. If the zamindar himself is boro korta, then his brother or his son would be choto korta.

Malayan/Malaun – A religious slur used by Muslims against pagans or non-Muslims in general, meaning a person who is deprived of God’s mercy or accursed. The term is most popularly used by Bengali Muslims to refer to Bengali Hindus. The dictionary published by the Bangla Academy gives the meaning of the Bengali word “মালাউন” as someone cursed or deprived of Allah’s mercy. It is similar to the term ‘Kafir’. In Bangladesh, the word is more specifically used to refer to the Hindu religious minority. In colloquial usage, the word is sometimes shortened to Malu. In the context of Bangladesh, some claim that the term also means someone who has been forcefully evicted from their homes. (https://www.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=459764541146009&id=373017759820688, check this article by Islamic Scholar Dr.Fuhad Nayeem from Bangladesh)

Taka – Bangladeshi currency.

Ashtami/Astami – 8th day of the Hindu festival Navratri or Durga Puja in Bengal.

Griha Devata – Kula Devata or Family Deity.

Mathaein – Colloquial for Maa Thakrun or Mata Thakurun. (No English equivalent.) A respectable woman. Maa is mother and ‘thakrun’ is female for ‘thakur’ which may mean God/lord/deity, a spiritual guide or a highly respectable person.

Katha – Unit of measurement used in some parts India and Bangladesh. 1 katha equals to 1/20 of a bigha or 720 sq.ft.

Grihaprabesh – Literally Griha = home, prabesh = enter. Hindu ritual performed before entering a new home.

Assar/Ashada – Bengali month, typically 15-17th June to 15-17th July. In 2019, Ashada begins on 22nd June and ends on 22nd July.

Edited & Notes by: Deep Be.

(Images collected from Google. No copyright infringement intended.)

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