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Dawn of Freedom Across the Churning Padma

By Saon Bhattacharya

“Ye daagh daagh ujaalaa, ye shab-gaziida sahar,
Vo intizaar thaa jis-kaa, ye vo sahar to nahiiN,
Ye vo sahar to nahiiN jis-kii aarzu lekar
Chale the yaar ke mil-ja`egi kahiiN na kahiN”

 (This leprous daybreak, dawn night’s fangs have mangled—
This is not that long-sought break of day,
Not that clear dawn in quest of which those comrades
Set out, believing that in heaven’s wide void…)

A lone river kite – gang cheel – hovered over the stormy Padma as the tops of the slender palms, palmyra, and plantain swayed wildly; and parts of the river’s muddy bank broke off and plunged into the churning waters below. Flimsy country boats that sparsely dotted the expansive river folded their sails in haste, rowing with all their might to keep clear of possible whirlpools. A murkier morning had never dawned; nor a more despondent day arisen.

He stood stunned into silence in the midst of his family’s ancient inner courtyard, ringed in by silent and brooding figures of his own blood – while more was being spilled beyond his village, even further upstream, and also beyond the mighty river. So they said.

There was nothing to be said here, meanwhile, nothing worth the discussion. The time to speak had long departed. They had collectively chosen silence instead; except to perhaps let out a voiceless scream when the mind and heart buckled in unison.

And the river mirrored these bleeding hearts and befuddled minds. Her muddy waters turning muddier still, stirring up with hatred and passion against her own; turning her waters liver-red along certain bends, like a purée of fresh human carcass awaiting the beaks of the vultures floating above. Even the monsoon-grey firmament weighed heavy with kohl-lined rain clouds threatened to burst upon the cleaved earth below.

They had to leave their land overnight. They had to leave with just about all that they could carry on their persons – suckling infants and household gods taking precedence over silver and strongboxes. It was ironic that hopeful lessons learnt in an earlier clime, under a more tolerant sky and by a more gently flowing river, should today help his family escape the mayhem and pillage. He knew the marshy jungles to the south of the river and the foot trails through the wild undergrowth like the back of his hand. Courtesy his dearly departed revolutionary younger brother, and Masterda’s band of fearless young men and women, who had worked this route long ago to transfer arms and brave-hearts. That this knowledge which naïve young minds had associated with lofty ideals of liberty and equality should come in useful at such a harsh hour made him grimace in bitter humour.

Their tiny convoy of bullock carts progressed painfully under the cover of night. The elderly patriarchs – his ailing grandfather with his old retainer, and his father – leading in the first cart, followed by the women and children – his elderly widowed aunt, elder sisters-in-law and their children, his wife and infant son – in a couple more behind. The brothers and a family friend, who also knew the way and local boatmen beyond the marshes, walked alongside.

The cart wheels repeatedly sank into the rich loamy forest floor, sodden with rain water. Or was it that the earth was reluctant to lose her children, clinging on to their retreating tracks, and sobbing in deep anguish? Why had Parashuram lopped off his mother’s head at the behest of his father? And more importantly, when brought back to life by her murderous son, why was his sin obliterated from her memory? Whose was the greater burden to bear—the son’s or the mother’s?

“Falak ke dasht meN taroN kii aakhiri manzil,
KahiN to hogaa shab-e sust mauj kaa sahil,
KahiN to jaake rukegaa safiina-e-gham-e-dil.” 

(Somewhere must be the stars’ last halting-place,
Somewhere the verge of night’s slow-washing tide,
Somewhere an anchorage for the ship of heartache.)

They stood huddled together, knee-deep in mud by the river bank, awaiting their turn to cross over. Having partitioned off their ancestor’s land, it wasn’t very difficult to portion off members of a fleeing family. Grouped with random strangers, who had also shed their umbilical cords, they fled across the tossing Padma on flimsy panshees.

Their neighbours had pressed coarse black burqas into the hands of the women in his household, while the simple boatmen had helped stow the men away in wooden drums aboard. He crouched down into the bottom of such a drum, armed with a kitchen knife and a few handfuls of dry muri knotted into a thin, red-and-white chequered gamchha at his waist, as did his elder brothers. Terrible tales of rape, pillage and massacre blew in the winds – of large convoys hacked down along the main throughways; of official river launches deliberately drowned with women and children aboard; of betrayal and cowardice and petty greed…And yet, here they were being transported surreptitiously to safety, with promises of being reunited with their estranged family again. Promises made and believed. Promises kept and honoured.

“Badal-chukaa hai bahut ahl-e-dard kaa dastuur,
Nishaat-e-vasl halaal o ‘azab-e-hijr haraam.”

 (Our leaders’ ways are altering, festive looks
Are all the fashion, discontent reproved; —) 

The other side of the river had its own turgid tale to tell. Although the family rejoined again at the Sealdah railway station in Calcutta, they were swept along by another mighty river – a river of doomed humanity. An abandoned train compartment served as shelter for them and many of their fellow emigrants; while the less fortunate occupied the station platforms, settling as uncertainly and as thickly as fruit flies.

Like so much that they had left behind, they learnt to contain their expansive hearts – as wide as the river they had crossed. They learnt to let their river go. They learnt never to bathe in her waters again; never to breathe her air; never to stare at her mirrored skies; never to hear her conch shells blow at eventide; and never to look back again…

 It took time for him to adjust to a new city, and to the fresh euphoria painfully lining their crippling loss. The old found it near impossible to reconcile and gradually drifted off into a private mental territory born of their own memories and obliteration; while the young learned to embrace the electric energy that charged a nascent nation.

His two elder brothers and their wives and children left the family behind in Calcutta, and set off for Bombay in search of new beginnings. He was now left with an enormous responsibility on his lonely shoulders. Thankfully, he found and discovered new and old acquaintances, who helped him regain his earlier employment with the Indian Railways. But the day they were to move to his newly assigned railway quarters at Narkeldanga, his grandfather decided to meld into his patchwork dream-haze, never to awaken.

That abandoned train compartment that had once plied the Faridpur – Calcutta route had been the last tenuous link, whose severance finally snapped his life-force. As his aunt poured drops of Ganga jal into her brother’s lips for the last time, he could hear the old man’s death ramblings, Why had Parashuram lopped off his mother’s head at the behest of his father? And when brought back to life by her son, why was his sin obliterated from her memory? Whose was the greater burden to bear – the son’s or the mother’s?

As the restrained wails of unwanted refugees rose up to mingle with the sooty chimney smoke from the factories and open air wood-fired ovens, he stepped out for the last time from the train compartment into the overcrowded platform below. There was much to be arranged for the family’s first funeral in that teeming metropolis. Sighing, he crushed his burning cigarette beneath his tired feet, and set off into the heart of the monstrous city.

“Jigar kii aag, nazar kii umang, dil kii jalan,
kisii pe chaara-e-hijraaN kaa kuchh asar hii nahiiN.
KahaaN se aa’ii nigaar-e-sabaa, kidhar ko ga’ii?
Abhii charaagh-e-sar-e-rah ko kuchh khabar hii nahiiN;
Abhii giraanii-e-shab meN kamii nahiiN aa’ii,
Najaat-e-diidaa-o-dil ki ghaRii nahiiN aa’ii;
Chale-chalo ke vo manjil abhii nahiiN aa’ii” 

(The fire of the spirit, the tumult of the eye, the burning of the heart,—
This cure for separation has no effect on any of these,
Whence came that darling morning breeze, whither has it gone?
The roadside lamp carries no knowledge of it still;
The night’s heaviness is unlessened as yet, the hour
Of the mind and the spirit’s deliverance is yet to strike;
Let us go on, for our destination is yet to arrive.)


Saon BhattacharyaSaon Bhattacharya has been writing poetry for 12 years. She’s a business editor and writer by profession, having worked across corporate industries in the last 18 years. This is her first piece of creative prose.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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