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Children of Refugees

Ruminations on the exodus of the Bengali Hindus from East Bengal (Bangladesh) and revelations of the darkest truths from the closets of the socalled “Marxist/Communist” Bengali.

[Why did our parents try to hide the truth from us? Why did no East Bengali writer or film director or musician ever explain in their work or outside of it, how we became refugees? More importantly, they who mourn for their ancestral homes and lament over their memories of East Bengal, why do they always abstain from telling us, “who” made them refugees? They never want to say it. It’s as if it was a simple matter of haves and have nots! For whom are we refugees, in our own land? Why did they try to hide it for all these years? In our first installment of this new series, “Children of Refugees”, Shefali Ghosh, daughter of a refugee, an ex-left liberal, shares with us her story. You the reader too can share your stories, we’re accepting both English and Bengali manuscripts.]

Here’s Shefali Ghosh’s account.

My Thakuma (grandmother) could not stop talking about our “desh Faridpur*” – she would tell us stories about the big house, fruit trees, our family Durga Puja and Kali puja, how my father was born on the morning after Kali puja was over etc etc. When we would sit down to eat rice, she would lament about not being able to feed us the rice prepared from the paddy of our own paddy field. Living in a cramped 2 bedroom house, we would listen to her stories of a big yard and a fruit garden, where you can play all day and yet explore only a small fraction of the garden.

We also got to hear bedtime stories,
fairy tales of Bengal, the kings and queens, Betal, Rakkhosh-Khokkhosh, Daityo-Danab* etc. I could not distinguish between reality and fiction. Stories from Faridpur was as true as Khirer Putul*. The demons of the fairytales and Muslim neighbors who threatened to kill her family and slaughtered her cows lived in the same realms in my mind. Time and again my father would admonish her if she talked negatively about the Muslim neighbors who forced our family out. “Do not teach them hate, Ma” – my baba (father) would interject, forcing my grandma to switch to stories of Betal.

I think her sons mourned the loss of their home too. My jethu (uncle/elder brother of father) and baba were determined to build a big “khola mela”(large, spacious) house for her. They did not want her to die in a “dui-kamra pairar khop bhara Bari”*.

Luckily she was able to breathe her last in her own house that her sons built for her. I was in high school at that time. With her passing away, the stories of our desh Faridpur became a distant memory.
After going to college I became a rabid anti-Hindu leftist. It was the cool thing in the 1980s. Our senior SFI* dadas* and didis* were brutal about the Hindu religion. They were all flowers and butterflies about Islam and Christianity though. I started hating my Hindu identity. I learned to loathe the Hindu Zamindars of East Bengal for mistreating the peasants (who were majority Muslims in the then East Bengal) but saw nothing wrong about Islamic invaders and rulers – the invaders were “royalty”. Sharmila Tagore* married “royalty”, not a marauder from Persia who killed and conquered foreign land.

In early 2012, I heard about something called the “Great Calcutta Killings” from a probashi (non-residential Indian) Bengali friend. I asked my father if he knew about it. He was almost in tears – “iswaarer korunai bechechi” he said. He narrated how as a 14 year old boy he came from Rangpur to Ballygunge, but by mistake got down in Park Circus Station instead of Ballygunge. Curfew was imposed only a few hours before his arrival and the military helped baba to get to his brother’s home in Ballygunge. Baba said if he had reached Park Circus 5/6 hours early, he would most definitely have been butchered in the train.

My conversation with baba opened the floodgate of my memory about thakuma’s stories. I asked baba why he never told me about the riots before. “I did not want to scare you guys. We can’t live with fear and pain of loss. We chose to look at the future only, hopefully a better one”. I told him I did not believe in erasing the past to make place for future. Our conversation made me rethink and revaluate the socio political environment in which I grew up. Did East Bengali Hindus embrace left and Naxal politics as a band-aid to cover their shame of not being able to protect their vulnerable ones? Did they really believe in Marxism or was it a mask to hide their shame of failure? Have we become fatalistic because we felt defeated? One of my father’s cousins committed suicide during the partition. We were told she was a “baaje meye”* – I now wonder if she was raped and her family could not protect her, so covered up the shame by calling her bad girl. Because I read this one incident in a book on 1946 Noakhali* riots*, where a married Hindu woman was abducted (raped and forced to marry her Muslim rapist) by Muslims and her family was so ashamed that they declared her dead instead. Her son had to sit through her funeral rituals and shave his head, all the while knowing the truth that his mother was taken by force. He tried to speak up but was silenced.

I ask myself why I did not stand up to the SFI bullies in my college and defend my faith. Why did I form an opinion impulsively without doing any research. I was ashamed of my hatred for my ancestral faith and people. But I will teach my children about our desh Faridpur. One day, I hope Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims, will proudly acknowledge that our ancestors are the same – we are the same people, Bharatiyas/Hindus. Hindus will not be driven by shame of being uprooted and Muslims will not be driven by aggressive hatred against Hindu “kafirs”. We will accept our common ancestry and heritage. I hope that day is not far away.

*Notes & Index:

Desh: Colloquial Bengali for ancestral home or hometown, birthplace. In proper Bengali it means nation or country.

Betal: Legendary character/creature from Hindu fairy tales and mythology. Alt.Spl. Vetaal/Vetal.

Rakkhosh-Khokkhosh: Meaning demons and monsters. From Bengali fairy tales. Alt sp. Rakshash.

Daityo-Danab: Giants. Children of Diti and Danu, according to Hindu mythology. Alt.Sp: Daitya-Danava.

Khirer Putul: ক্ষীরের পুতুল। A children’s fairy tale/fantasy book by Abanindranath Tagore (Thakur). Literally meaning a doll made of condensed milk or cream.

Dui Kamrar Payrar Khop: Colloquial Bengali; a 2 room pigeon’s nest, implying a small apartment.

SFI: Students Federation of India. Student wing of
CPIM [Communist Party of India(Marxist)].

dada & didi: Literally ones own elder brother and elder sister. But in India it is tradition to call one’s male cousins dada (in case they’re older) and female cousins didi. In Bengal, the denomination is extended to any random person. A male college senior is called dada by the juniors and female seniors are didi. You can start a conversation with a total stranger by calling them dada or didi in Bengal.

Sharmila Tagore: A famous Indian/Bollywood actor. Belonging to the famous Tagore family. Married former Indian cricket team captain Pataudi. Mother to Saif Ali Khan and Soha Ali Khan.

Iswar: God;

“Iswarer karunay bechechi”: saved by the grace of God or God was merciful on me. Implying that one had managed to avoid certain impending death.

Rangpur: A district in Bangladesh.

Ballygunge: A locality in South Kolkata.

Park Circus: A Muslim majority region in Kolkata, notorious for crimes, bullying, smuggling, trafficking, rape, murder, communally provocative environment etc.

Baaje meye: Literally a bad woman or bad girl. Implying a woman of promiscuous nature.

1946 Noakhali Riots: Wrongly named riot, this was a preplanned attack on the Hindu minorities of Noakhali, Bangladesh (then East Bengal, proposed to be a part of Pakistan). It was an onesided assault, part of the ethnic cleansing routine of Bengali Hindus, which began with Great Calcutta Killings. Perpetrated by Muslim League goons and many Muslim civilians that answered the rally call of ‘Islam in Danger’.

Edited & Notes by: Deep Be.

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